Margaret Drabble fans will welcome the feast of themes in The Pure Gold Baby

Cover of Margaret Drabble's The Pure Gold BabyBritish writer Margaret Drabble’s latest novel, The Pure Gold Baby, is an intellectual feast of themes that provokes readers to think about mental disabilities, ageing, and difficult choices that people make between nurturing others and achieving their own potential. This may sound grim, and in fact not everyone will like the pitiless honesty of this book and the powerful, disturbing language with which its messages are delivered.

The novel spans most of its protagonist’s adult life. Jessica Speight is an anthropologist whose career begins promisingly with a trip to Africa that she never forgets. In particular, she is struck by observing a group of happy children with fused fingers and toes. The children seem unaffected in any way by their abnormality.

Soon after this trip, Jess becomes a single mother, the result of an affair with one of her married professors. Though her daughter Anna, “the pure gold baby”, has a sunny temperament and is easy to care for, it soon becomes apparent that she is developmentally disabled. Although Anna is socially adept and well-liked by other children, she will never be able to read or acquire the skills to take on any kind of job.

Jess becomes a “city anthropologist”: she makes a decent living writing scientific articles, but does her research only in libraries. Anna is the focus of her life.

The Pure Gold Baby is told from the point of view of Jessica’s neighbour Eleanor, one of the mothers of the children in Anna’s playgroup. This narrator reminds me of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Like Nick, Eleanor is not a main character in the story: she is an observer and, in a sense, a worshipper of someone quite unlike her. Jess is beautiful and has unusual affairs with men, whereas Eleanor is married and never strays from her husband. Jess is also more educated, well-travelled, and sophisticated than Eleanor. Yet Jess has the unusual burden of Anna, and the reader senses that Eleanor is thankful her life is more “ordinary” than Jess’s.

Hearing Jess’s story from a narrator who is an observer rather than an intimate friend gives the novel a curious atmosphere of detachment. Eleanor is somewhat like an omniscient narrator because much of the story is given from her point of view as an older woman, decades after many of the events she describes have occurred. By then, Jess has confided in her a good deal.

Yet Jess always remains something of a mystery woman. She is described as being “sexually obsessed” with Anna’s father, but we never learn in Jessica’s own words how she feels about him. We are told only that she meets “The Professor” once a week for sex in a nondescript hotel. After a few years of this affair, The Professor and his wife leave England to continue their studies abroad and Jess never sees him again.

The Pure Gold Baby is unusual because it is not traditionally plotted, with rising action, a definite climax, and a resolution. It doesn’t present events selectively to create a neat, logical story. Instead, we see Jessica’s life as the messy, meandering path that real life usually is, with its mixture of intentional choices and decisions made by default (“going with the flow”), and relationships that change over time, often in surprising ways.

This unconventional structure contributes to one of Drabble’s themes: the way life has its unpredictable, uncontrollable, random elements. Eleanor comments that few of the neighbourhood children have grown up to fulfill what their childhood selves seemed to predict: the angelic boy turns bad and ends up in prison, and the mentally disturbed boy is given medication that allows him to live a “normal” life with a job, a wife, and children. Anna, however, has an almost completely predictable life: for her there can be no normal arc of becoming an adult with a family and career of her own.

Much of The Pure Gold Baby is permeated with a sense of sadness about the approach of old age, with its humiliations, disabilities, and regrets. It is Eleanor’s frank musings as an old woman that give the book its tremendous emotional impact despite the reader’s detachment from Jess.

In one section, Eleanor comments on her parents’ decision to sell the family home and buy a bungalow:

We call it downsizing now, but we didn’t then. We hadn’t yet coined that familiarising, patronising, dismissive, yet helpful term for decline and retrenchment, for the beginning of the flat, slow and then descending and accelerating march to death and the little, little room of the grave. (p. 137)

Eleanor reflects that young people never know that getting old is going to happen to them. She remembers going on a school trip to the Rodin Museum in Paris when she was seventeen. She saw Rodin’s bronze of an old woman (later she learned it was called La Belle Heaulmière, or The Helmet-Maker’s Once Beautiful Wife, amongst other names) and was “appalled and offended” by it.

Eleanor gives a horrifying description of Rodin’s sculpture:

She is drooped, sagged, imploded. She is passive. She is a passive recipient of the battery, the assault of time, and of the contempt of men. Her breasts are dry and dangle, her ribs stand out, her skin hangs in folds from her withering frame, her back is bowed in submission. (p. 141)

This section of the book haunted me.

Drabble makes this novel coherent not with a plot-driven structure, but through the interconnectedness of its characters and themes. Ageing is one process that disables us, but some people are physically or mentally disabled from the start, or become mentally ill. Characters with all these disabilities are part of A Pure Gold Baby, and through their stories Drabble shows the changing language, politics, laws, and treatments related to disabled people.

She also gives us fascinating tidbits about great writers who’ve had disabled children or siblings, and either obsessed about them or ignored them: she mentions Jane Austen, Pearl Buck, Saul Bellow, and Japanese novelist Kenzaburō Ōe, who won his Nobel Prize in large part (according to Drabble) “by writing painfully, brutally, repetitively, obsessively about his grossly abnormal son, his son whose brained oozed horribly out of a hole in his head.” (p. 161)

It is only at the end of the book that Drabble creates a neat structure by having Jessica’s story end with a trip to Africa just as it began with one. This time Jess travels with Anna. Jess has achieved progress in a sense by realizing that she doesn’t have to use Anna as an excuse for never returning to Africa. Yet the trip is anti-climactic too; Jess doesn’t see the children with fused fingers that have lingered in her mind for decades; nor does anything else of significance happen. There is no traditional ending.

We are left with a lingering sense of detachment and sadness—and much to ponder.

***

Quotes in this blog post taken from:

Drabble, Margaret. (2013). The Pure Gold Baby. Toronto: HarperCollins.

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Exposed: secrets and stories

cropArmsUpFacingSilhouetteA few days ago someone asked me to remove one of my posts from my running blog because he thought what I wrote would be damaging to his professional reputation.

I had been careful in writing this post to respect his privacy as much as possible—while still retaining a story that expressed at least part of the emotional truth of the situation.

After reviewing the post, I decided to leave it as is. But I didn’t take his request lightly, and it caused me to think again about one of the moral issues writers grapple with: how is it possible to write honestly about ourselves, first of all, and more significantly, about the people who are or have been close to us?

This is not a new question for writers. There are numerous examples of famous writers who’ve published damning books about their ex-husbands, lovers, or other family members, whether as fiction or memoirs. Sometimes writers may have been motivated by anger, hurt, or a desire for vengeance. More often, though, I suspect that these writers are trying to analyze, to interpret, to create a narrative about the significant events of their lives in an effort to explain (to themselves as well as readers) the mysteries of intimate relationships, how love turns to hate and harmony mutates into conflict.

What reasons make it morally justifiable to write about personal topics, even when poeple’s secrets will be exposed?

A few authors have made lots of money by publishing sensational memoirs that became huge bestsellers; two that come to mind are The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. Both of these books were about severely dysfunctional families. Both were also well written, and provided constant jolts of shock, amazement, and sometimes, inspiration.

I’ve also read some good books by heroin addicts that have depicted the extreme depths of addiction; the way a life’s focus becomes reduced entirely to where the next fix is coming from, all morality and loyalty to anyone else obliterated. Does understanding addiction better make me a more compassionate person?

Some reviewers criticize the readers of such books for being voyeurs who are encouraging the proliferation of this “drug writing porn.”

Perhaps both the writing and the reading of sensational or highly personal books are justified if the writing is good. Does the creation of what we could call Literature or Art justify exposing or hurting other people?

How can we judge whether a book (or other piece of writing) is a work of art? It has to do not only with technical writing skills but also with the universality of the book’s themes and characters. Does the book inspire readers in some way? Even ugly truths can help readers, by giving them the comfort of knowing that they are not alone in experiencing terrible thoughts or emotions; perhaps a dark book also includes messages about recovery or learning.

That request to remove one of my blog posts seemed like a personal violation. Why should I hide a piece of creative work that had taken me much effort to write and deliberation about the risks involved? Yet I understood that person’s reason for making the request, and it forced me to examine my reasons for writing a blog. Why do I write about personal topics, not just running?

I write to express myself, and there is no doubt that writing is therapeutic for me. Yet I could simply write a diary and keep it all to myself. Why do I need to publish what I write?

It’s normal for writers to crave an audience: writers want feedback about their work. Hasn’t part of the power of books always been to connect the minds of writers and readers? The difference now is that with blogs and social media, the interaction between writer and reader can be almost instantaneous. It can be more mutual and personal than it used to be. The blog writing style is powerful mainly because of its immediacy and its personal nature. Readers often expect a blog to convey not only facts and stories, but to express the writer’s personality and style.

The conflict I have in exposing my writing publicly is that many of the topics I’m most fascinated by are personal ones—the timeless themes about relationships—sex, love, betrayal, denial—and how modern technologies have affected how relationships evolve. Where do I draw the line about what I write, and who I include in my stories? Where is the line between writing something worthy of readers’ attention, and writing as a narcissistic or exhibitionistic act?

These questions can all be seen as part of a wider discussion about how we present ourselves online. What are the repercussions for me personally, and for the people I write about? Will I become unemployable by writing about failed relationships or drug use? Social media gurus advise us to include some personal messages on our sites, to convey something of our individuality in our marketing efforts, but in reality you can’t veer very far to the Dark Side without risking your professional and personal reputation.

I’ve already made the choice to take that risk. I’ve rejected the idea of presenting myself online as always being the upbeat, successful, ever-persistent athlete who followed my passion and talent for running without ambivalence.

According to marketing experts, a blog should be about one clearly defined topic that is geared to a specific audience. I’ve rejected this advice because having a wildly successful blog, perhaps even a money-generating one, is not my primary objective.

Instead, I write my running blog for the reasons I’ve given above—for self-expression, for therapy, and as a way to connect with friends and strangers. My blog is an experiment to help me make a decision about the direction my writing will take in the future. Will I write some kind of memoir about my running career?—and if so, will it include some of the negative aspects of making running the top priority in my life for so many years? Or will I write a fictional book that draws heavily on my own experiences but bends the facts by disguising real people and using my imagination to play with real events?

A (relevant) aside about two books

It’s ironic that at the same time as I’ve been thinking about how to represent myself honestly in my blog, and how much of my real life to expose, I’ve been reading two books whose themes are about the devastating psychological consequences of living an unfulfilled life, of denying one’s true nature and living hypocritically.

First edition photo of As For Me and My House

First Edition, published in 1941.

These two books could hardly be more different from each other in form and in context: the first, As For Me and My House (1941), is a classic Canadian Depression-era novel by Sinclair Ross. The second, Fury (2001), by Salman Rushdie (famed author of The Satanic Verses), is a brilliant, sophisticated novel set in New York City just before the terrorist bombings.

The similarity between the books is that both their protagonists have compromised their artistic natures in exchange for money: both are tormented psychologically, and have ruined their marriages. Philip Bentley in House has repressed his dream of being an artist and become a small-town minister (though he doesn’t even believe in God), and Malik Solanka in Fury has allowed his beloved creation, the subversive and intelligent Little Brain doll, to be hideously transformed by popular media into a creature whose behaviour and values are diametrically opposed to her creator’s original intentions. Though the Little Brain franchise has made him a multi-millionaire, Solanka’s self-disgust has manifested itself as a fury that directs itself even at those whom he most loves, his wife Eleanor and their young son.

Book cover of Fury

Fury was published in 2001.

I mention these two excellent books (each worthy of a full book review) because they reinforced my belief about how important it is to represent oneself with integrity, being true to one’s values rather than being hypocritical. I feel that way about my blog writing: where is the value or purpose in writing if the truth is evaded or watered down to the extent that there is no emotion left?

Yet I’ve also learned that in the real world, the world of real jobs, corporate culture, and getting along with co-workers, I need to be more flexible in my beliefs, less outspoken, and more diplomatic in my communication with others.

My blog remains a place where I can “be myself”—where I can write about the topics that matter to me and take some risks in revealing my personal opinions and experiences.

The blog post that I was asked to remove was, in fact, one that many readers responded to in a positive and supportive way. Their feedback reassured me that I had made the right decision to publish the post. But perhaps the readers who thought it was inappropriate kept their comments to themselves!

What do you think?

Is it ethically wrong for writers to publish material that could hurt others professionally or personally?

What reasons justify the publication of sensitive material about living people?

Is it a mistake to publish sensitive material if one expects to ever work in the business world?

Printing and marketing a quality self-published book: an evening with Craig Shemilt of Island Blue Print Co.

On Wednesday evening (October 9, 2013) Canadian Authors Vancouver meeting attendees had the privilege of meeting Craig Shemilt of Island Blue/Printorium Bookworks. Shemilt’s family has been in the printing business for over 60 years, and his expertise in the rapidly-changing printing and publishing industry was evident.

Island Blue Print Co. is now 101 years old. Printorium Bookworks is the book printing part of the business. (You can visit the website here.) The company produces books for about 200 Canadian publishers and 3,000 independent authors.

How can self-publishing authors end up with a professional-quality book? Using a friendly, no-nonsense style, Shemilt gave CAA writers a wealth of simple but critical tips about preparing their books for printing:

1)      Professional help: Pay for the services of at least two professionals: a designer and an editor. Your book’s success will depend to a large extent on its appearance, especially the front cover, back cover, and spine. Bookstores will not sell a book that isn’t edited.

We wouldn’t judge a book by its cover, would we?

Shemilt had our full attention when he said that a book placed in a bookstore has only fifteen seconds to capture a potential buyer. He broke it down this way:

  • Unless it gets a special display, the only part of the book that can be seen is its spine. The title has 1.5 seconds to grab the buyer’s attention.
  • Next, the buyer looks at the cover and takes three seconds to reject the book or look further.
  • Next, the buyer spends 10.5 seconds reading the back cover before deciding whether to open the book and investigate its contents.

2)      Formatting:

  • Use single pagination, not spreads.
  • Remember that page one (and all odd-numbered pages) will be on the right side of your book.
  • All images must be 300 dpi or they won’t look acceptable when printed.
  • Use 10-12 pt type; 14 or 16 pt for children’s books.
  • For full-colour pages, add an extra ¼” the entire way around the actual page size so the colour will be sure to “bleed” right to the edge. Otherwise your pages will print with a white line somewhere at the edge.
  • The “gutter” side of each page (the inside) should have a margin of at least ¾”. The outer side of the page should have a margin of at least ½” but 5/8” is the more standard size.
  • Most books look better with a larger margin at the bottom than at the top.
  • Shemilt emphasized that the size of a book can greatly increase the cost of printing. 8 ½ x 11” size is fine in portrait orientation, but a book this size printed in landscape orientation costs a lot more to print because it can’t be done on Printorium Bookworks’ equipment. Shemilt advises authors not to design a book beyond 8 ½ “ wide unless they expect to sell their book for a premium price that will cover the much higher cost of printing.

3)      Other steps before printing:

  • Include a copyright page. If you’re not sure what should be on it, just look at a traditionally-published book and copy the copyright page (laughs inserted here).
  • Get an ISBN number. It’s free. There is a lot of information to fill out in the application, but you don’t have to get every detail about your book perfect—you can edit the information later. You can apply for an ISBN number through the “Design and Layout” area of Printorium’s website.
  • Most designers have the proper software to create barcodes for a book’s cover. They will charge about $25 to add a barcode to a cover. It’s not a good idea to download free barcodes because they often don’t print clearly enough to work.
  • You should use the most recent software to convert your book to a PDF for printing. This process flattens all the transparency levels in your document and, very importantly, embeds all fonts. Island Blue’s printers don’t have every font that exists, so if you have an unusual font it needs to be embedded or it won’t print looking the way you expect.
  • Don’t steal fonts—these fonts will not print.

Digital vs. offset printing

Printorium Bookworks does only digital printing. Shemilt explained the differences between offset and digital printing:

  • Offset printing becomes more economical than digital printing when the run numbers exceed about 1,500 copies.
  • However, digital printing has several advantages over offset printing. It allows independent authors or small publishers to print very small numbers of books at a time, allowing authors to manage cash flow and reduce risk. Printorium Bookworks will print as few as twelve copies of a book. (Shemilt noted that very few self-published books sell more than a thousand copies.) Moreover, Shemilt’s company can get proofs to an author only 2-3 days after receiving a print-ready file. One hundred books can be printed in five days. By contrast, offset printing takes six weeks to three months.
  • Digital printing produces a very high-quality book. Printorium Bookworks uses paper according to publishers’ requirements, typically 60 lb or 70 lb recycled paper. They print with carbon black toner, which prints a pure black colour as opposed to the blue-black or brown-black choices of offset printing.

Should you produce an e-book version of your book?

Shemilt mentioned that many people (himself included) still love books as physical objects to look at and be comfortable reading. However, he recommends making your book available in both printed and e-book formats. The e-book market is growing rapidly. In the summer of 2013, e-books represented 26% of book sales; some experts think that number will rise to 50% by the summer of 2014.

Files need to be converted to ePub, Smashwords and PDF formats for e-book publication. Many people learn to do the formatting themselves, but Shemilt recommends hiring a designer who’s an expert in this. They will charge roughly $200 to do the conversion and will save you weeks of time.

Marketing

Island Blue book mark

Craig Shemilt says bookmarks (rather than business cards) are a writer’s best marketing tool.

Most writers who self-publish are aware that writing is only the first step of the process. Shemilt went over the subject of marketing very quickly, but made these main points:

Google to find out more about your competition and the markets they’ve found. What is your book related to? Use your research to know how to target your potential readers.

Lots of places besides bookstores sell books these days. Market your book to a wide range of stores, depending on your topic or niche.

Readings don’t have to take place only at bookstores or writing festivals. Legions and weekend markets are two other places Shemilt suggested. He emphasized that you should select the sections you read carefully to keep your audience in suspense and make them want to buy your book!

Social media is a mandatory part of marketing these days: Use LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Create a website or a blog for your book.

Bookmarks are a writer’s best marketing tool! Give them out like business cards—people use them.

Resources

Visit the Printorium website at www.printoriumbookworks.com . It tells you everything you need to know about printing; you can even download a copy of the Printorium Printing Guidebook.

 

Coffee Klatch or Coffee Klatsch? A 1960s flashback

A couple of days ago I was reminiscing with a friend about what our mothers’ lives were like in the ‘60s, pre- Women’s Lib, when most mothers stayed at home all day with the kids. I mentioned that my mother had a coffee klatsch with two neighbours every day, just before lunch.

“I thought it was coffee clutch,” said my friend. “You know, like a clutch of women gossiping.”

“Well yeah, it was kinda like that, but it’s definitely coffee klatsch.”

My friend wasn’t sure he believed me and was, as always, ready to instantly google to verify the truth. “How is it spelled?”

“K-L-A-T-C-H…or wait, I have a feeling there might be an “S” in there, before the “C”.

His search quickly revealed that both “klatch” and “klatsch” are correct spellings, though it could be argued that the latter is more authentic because (as I guessed) the expression is derived from the German:

Kaffeeklatsch = Kaffee (coffee) + Klatsch (noise—as of conversation).

I have the editor’s eye. If I’ve ever seen a word in print, I’ll “remember” (this is an unconscious process) how it’s spelled. If I’m unsure about the spelling of a word, it’s almost always because I’ve seen it spelled more than one way, and there is more than one correct spelling. Many people aren’t aware, for instance, of how many variations in spelling there are between American and Canadian English—it goes far beyond colour/color and cheque/check.

CoffeeKlatsch.indd

How do you pronounce “gondola”?

Unfortunately, the editor’s eye doesn’t help at all when it comes to pronouncing words that one has read but never heard spoken. Anyone who reads a lot has probably experienced the embarrassment of confidently saying a word aloud and being laughed at by a listener who knows the right pronunciation.

Grouse Mountain Skytram

The Grouse Mountain Skytram–or gondola, if you dare to say it.

After the coffee klatsch research, my friend and I drifted into a conversation about fanatics who do the Grouse Grind (the 3 km “nature’s stairmaster” mountain climb in Vancouver) several times in one day. My friend mentioned the gon-DO-la trip down the mountain and I questioned his pronunciation. “I thought it was GON-do-la!”

Once again Google was ready to provide answers. My friend first looked at a Merriam-Webster student dictionary online:

http://www.wordcentral.com/cgi-bin/student?book=Student&va=gondola

Clicking on the audio symbol confirmed his pronunciation! However, I was suspicious since Merriam-Webster is an American dictionary, so I told him to try another dictionary. He chose to click on a YouTube video:

This site made it clear that gondola has two correct pronunciations, based on the meaning of the word. So this was a happy case where we were both right!

One could argue that it was wrong of me to say GON-do-la when talking about the Grouse Mountain Skytram, because the tram more closely resembles a freight car than a boat. Unfortunately, pronunciation is affected not only by dictionary definitions but also by local peculiarities of usage. Vancouverites, do you say GON-do-la or gon-DO-la when you’re talking about the Grouse Skytram?

gondolaCartoon

Book review: Bill Gaston’s The World may be his best yet

TheWorldGlobe

The World

by Bill Gaston

With his latest novel, The World, Bill Gaston has proved once again to be a writer with two great strengths: compassion and technical virtuosity.

The World lives up to its grandiose title, even though it refers to a very small world—an island near Victoria, BC, where lepers were segregated in the nineteenth century. They were left there to suffer and die, without help other than a weekly boat delivery of the most rudimentary necessities, including opium.

The main story isn’t about that island, though—it is Stuart Price’s story, set in present-day Victoria. Stuart is a typical Gaston character in that he’s basically a good guy (though slightly wonky) fallen on hard times. His wife left him for a Buddhist group five years earlier and he is estranged from his daughter Jennifer. But the hard times covered in this book begin with a fire that destroys Stuart’s house. Ironically, the fire began when he burned his mortgage documents to celebrate making his final payment on the house with his lump-sum pension. Now, at fifty-one, having taken early retirement, he is homeless, jobless, and down to a couple thousand dollars in savings. What about house insurance? The hapless Stuart discovers that he failed to make his latest insurance payment because of forgetfulness and a series of unfortunate coincidences.

Stuart embarks on a cross-country drive to Toronto in his dying ’96 Datsun with a dual purpose: to meet the faceless decision-makers in the upper echelons of the insurance bureaucracy who have denied his appeal for coverage of the fire; and to visit one of his life’s greatest friends, Mel, who has recently written him a note hinting that her esophageal cancer has recurred.

It is one of Gaston’s extraordinary gifts that he can make the most awful, unlucky losers lovable and deserving of our empathy and even respect—for their sheer persistence. And what else but a loser can we call Stuart when his car finally dies completely in Parry Sound, a couple of hundred kilometres from his destination, after broken glasses, an expensive double eye operation, and a severe case of head lice have left him penniless and bald?

The valiant Stuart makes it to Toronto, where his friend Mel “rescues” him after a heartless policeman puts in him a jail cell for protesting the cop’s treatment of a homeless man.
The reunion with his old friend (and lover, we learn), turns the tide for Stuart, but it would be unfair to say that The World becomes cheerful at this point. Mel is very close to death, and her father is in the Alzheimer’s ward of a care home. Stuart is Mel’s driver on their daily trips to her father’s institution, but more than that, he becomes Mel’s ally in the ongoing battle to hold on to the remnants of her father’s memory and intelligence.

Mel’s father, Hal, a.k.a. M.H. Dobbs, was an academic historian, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Victoria. Before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he published The World. This is the story-within-a-story of Gaston’s book. Mel introduces Stuart to her practice of reading her father’s book to him during her visits. Doing so, she believes, evokes his memories and sometimes prompts him to make comments that give clues about the mysterious parts of his life.

Is The World, a supposedly fictional story of researcher Michael Bodleian’s discovery of a 130-year-old manuscript written by the sole female living in the leper colony near Victoria, BC, really a novel? How much of Bodleian’s story of his affair with the translator of his document, a Chinese woman named Naomi, is really Dobbs’ own experience? Could the book explain why Hal deserted his wife and daughter to live for fourteen years in Nepal?

Stuart becomes the regular reader during his and Mel’s visits to her father. He is drawn, tantalizingly, into The World, but more importantly, into the present worlds of both Mel and Hal: he is a witness and a support for both, the one living through her final painful days, the other living through his last fleeting moments of lucidity.

Gaston expertly switches points of view as the book progresses. He begins with Stuart, but later allows the reader into Mel’s mind. Irony abounds in this book, but it is never more bittersweet than in the contrast between the wild Mel Stuart used to know—the one who smoked, drank, took drugs, cooked, and ate with irrepressible gusto—and the dying woman who can no longer eat or drink except by injecting liquid food into a tube. Even with this grim situation, Gaston can show the undying light of a human spirit. One of the final scenes of the book paints a picture of Stuart, Mel, and Hal at a Korean restaurant. Mel scandalizes the other diners by putting spicy food on her tongue to savour it, then spitting it into a glass, and she gets increasingly drunk as she injects wine into her feeding tube.

Gaston even has the audacity to write a section of the book from Hal’s point of view, getting inside the mind of a once-brilliant man now nearing the advances stages of Alzheimer’s.

All three points of view are executed believably; all increase readers’ understanding of both Stuart’s story and the nested stories about Michael Bodleian and the leper woman’s account. All the stories are interconnected through their related ethical questions: Is it fair to claim to be able to write from the point of view of a leper, or a dying person, or a person suffering from Alzheimer’s? Is it fair to abandon those closest to you in a search for self-fulfillment?

The World is satisfyingly complex in its details and narrative structure, yet it is easy to read, drawing you in with its moving characters and their mysterious lives. I read most of the book on a single Toronto-Vancouver flight!

Current trends in book publishing: Robert Mackwood presents at the Canadian Authors Association, Vancouver

On Wednesday, May 15, 2013, I had the privilege of hearing literary agent Robert Mackwood give a presentation to the Vancouver Branch of the Canadian Authors Association (CAA).

Mackwood is a literary agent with thirty years’ experience in book publishing, including fifteen years working for both large and small publishers and fifteen years as an independent literary agent and consultant.

His fast-paced, entertaining talk provided an insider’s take on current trends in publishing. His advice could be helpful to many authors, especially those writing their first book and wondering about self-publishing. This post will highlight some of his points.

Trends

• There are no mid-size publishers left in Canada, only the huge international publishers and very small independent publishing houses.
• The number of independent bookstores has been decreasing for some years and that trend will continue.
• Books sales are down.

Beware of who you choose to be your literary agent

Mackwood estimates there are only about twenty legitimate literary agents in Canada. Anyone can claim to be an agent. A person’s track record is crucial. Ask your potential literary agent, “What have you sold?”

Challenging assumptions: the facts

• 95% of books are not represented by an agent.
• Agents don’t do editing or marketing. Agents are an arbitrator between an author and a publisher.
• A bestseller is a book that is on a bestseller list. Mackwood talked about the often-quoted (but incorrect) statement: “A Canadian book is a bestseller if it sells 5,000 copies.” He explained that this misperception originated when someone asked Jack McClelland, sometime in the 1970s, how many copies a book would likely have to sell in Canada to make it onto a bestseller list.
McClelland’s reply, “About 5,000,” doesn’t mean that any book that sells 5,000 copies is automatically a bestseller. Mackwood joked about the guy who paid to have 5,000 copies of his book printed, and then claimed to have written a “bestseller”.
• Don’t write a book if your main goal is to make money. Write a book if you have an idea or topic you feel strongly about, and you want to make a contribution.
• No one writes a bestseller in thirty days. Don’t believe it.

Advantages of traditional publishing

• There is still prestige attached to being published by a recognized publishing house.
• The publisher will provide some editing and marketing services.
• The publisher will cover printing costs.
• The publisher will provide an advance against royalties (though advances are getting smaller).

However, Mackwood is very much a promoter of self-publishing. It no longer carries the stigma of the old “vanity press”, when people printed books that no publisher would touch. These days, many bestselling and critically-acclaimed books are self-published. Many started out as self-published books and were then picked up by traditional publishers once they had become successful. The quality of self-published books can now be as high as traditionally-published books.

Advantages of self-publishing

• Author control.
• Building your own brand—a book is an excellent tool for this.
• Much better royalties—but you have to work a lot harder, at preparing your book for print, marketing, and distribution. (There are independent distributors who, for a fee, will get self-published books into stores. However, they take a large chunk of the profits. The danger is that stores retain the right to return unsold books. When books are returned, the publisher—in this case, the author—loses money.)
• Online marketing opportunities can be good—if you learn how to use them.
• Happiness. Most people experience a huge sense of satisfaction when they can hold their finished book in their hand.

E-books and other predictions about the future of books

• The number of e-books sold in the United States is getting close to the number of print books sold.
• One advantage of e-books is that they allow older books to be continually available. Before, backlisted books would be removed from a publisher’s list if they didn’t sell at least thirty copies a week. Then they would be out of print and unavailable anywhere except libraries or used bookstores.
• The average price for an e-book now is in the $6.99–7.99 range. There are plenty of e-books available for 99 cents or for free. Authors usually get a 25% royalty.
• It’s still the “Wild West days” of e-book publishing. What will people be willing to pay for e-books? Should writers specifically gear their books to the e-book market? We don’t yet know the answers to these questions.

Robert Mackwood is now doing more consulting work, helping authors who need guidance and direction with their book ideas (in contrast to trying to sell an already-completed book to a publisher). He can be reached through his Seventh Avenue Literary Agency website at http://www.seventhavenuelit.com .

***

Ryan Vetter speaks about self-publishing e-books through Wundr

Ryan Vetter, founder of the self-publishing company Wundr (http://www.wundrbooks.com ), also spoke at the same meeting to tell us how his company can assist writers who want to self-publish an e-book. His company has produced writing software called Playwrite that allows writers to create a book from scratch and end up with an ePub file, with no need for file conversion.

The company also offers writers many other services, such as a wide selection of high-quality, affordable book covers (including animated covers), free ISBN #s, and lots of advice about how to market e-books and ramp up sales. Wundr’s basic fee is 5% of royalties, but they can provide more extensive marketing packages to writers for a higher fee.

Vetter mentioned that the two things critical to successful e-book sales are
1) The cover image.
2) A superbly-written preview of the e-book—this preview consists of about 10% of the book’s content, and is offered to readers for free to entice them to buy the book.

Someone in the audience asked Vetter if Wundr provided editing services. He replied that they did, but it was an automated process. As an editor, I didn’t like the sound of that. I know there are excellent editing software programs available, but reputable editors don’t work with software alone. Many editors use software to be efficient at mundane tasks of copy editing and style consistency, but good editing is much more than that.

Nancy Huston’s Plainsong evokes my sense of Canadian identity

Cover of Nancy Huston's Plainsong

Canadian-born writer Nancy Huston has long been one of my favourite writers, and while reading Plainsong (published in 1993) I was kicking myself for not reading it sooner. The novel is filled with compelling characters and history, and written with Huston’s characteristic poetic, intimate style.

Yet my main purpose in writing this post is not to cover Plainsong as a traditional book review. Instead, I’m more interested in the lines of thought this four-generation story provoked, the way it revealed my unconscious absorption of Canadian identity and history.

Make no mistake; Plainsong is a damn good story. Though it contains a cast of many characters, its protagonist is Paddon Sterling, born in 1900. This multi-generational story, though centred upon Paddon, is narrated by his granddaughter Paula. It’s an unflinching telling of the deprivation, hardship, abuse, and lost dreams that characterized the lives of many who lived in the late 1800s or through the years of the two World Wars and the Depression.

Plainsong grabbed me and kept me reading when I should have been working during the day, and sleeping at night. I read about Paddon’s father suffering through the punishing cold and poverty of the Gold Rush, and then how Paddon, trapped unwillingly into the life of a small-town Prairie schoolteacher, struggled to provide food for his family during the Depression.

It made me reflect that we modern people don’t know what work and suffering are compared to what these people went through. Now, we think about “achieving our potential” and “finding fulfilling work”, but people of Paddon’s generation grimly did whatever they could to survive. Most of their work was backbreaking, soul-destroying and boring. They were forced to give up their dreams at a very young age (at university, Paddon thinks he’ll become a great philosopher).

Plainsong depicts (realistically, I think), the way even passionate love and lust could be destroyed by privation and suffering. Some people turned to alcohol as their only comfort, and this often led to the abuse of women and children, victims of previously decent men’s frustration and despair.

Many people died of hunger or disease, or chose suicide as the only possible exit from an unbearable life. There wasn’t much social assistance. Families took care of their own—or didn’t. (In Plainsong, Paddon’s uncle, whom Paddon has been close to since childhood, loses his farm and asks Paddon if he can live with his family. Paddon has to refuse his uncle’s desperate request when his wife pleads with him to save their limited food for their children.)

But some couples’ commitment and loyalty to each other were unshakeable. Today, it’s hard to imagine having the stoicism and sheer capacity for hard work—manual, repetitive work—that my grandparents’ generation had to endure. Men worked like horses and women gave up everything for their children.

Much of the reason I liked Plainsong was because I felt connected to its events. On the surface, this seems absurd—I’m a modern, urban person—how could I possibly relate to the historical events of the settling of the Prairies, the Gold Rush, the World Wars, and the Depression?

Well, my own grandparents lived through most of these events. As a child, I knew three of my grandparents well. One of my grandfathers grew up on a farm; my mother spent her childhood summers at the family farm when it still lacked electricity and running water. I visited the modernized farm and met my second cousins when I was a teenager.

Another way I started learning about “the pioneers” at a very young age was by visiting Toronto’s Black Creek Pioneer Village with my family and on school field trips. (This “living museum” town opened to the public in 1960 and is still thriving now.) The “village” includes many original/restored buildings dating from 1816 to the 1860s. They are filled with furniture and artifacts from the 1800s, and costumed guides explain what daily life and work were like in a small Ontario village in the 1800s. I remember being amazed at how much the pioneers did “from scratch”—for example, not only sewing clothes, but shearing their own sheep for wool, carding the wool, spinning it, weaving it to make cloth, then dyeing it using juices from local berries.

People were similarly self-sufficient with respect to food. They grew everything, using their scarce cash for only a few precious staples. Food was simple—and in the winter, when almost everything was pickled or heavily salted, not very plentiful or appetizing.

Through the shared experience of my parents and grandparents, my personal “family memory” goes back over a hundred years now. Yet I think I’ve absorbed Canadian history and a sense of the roots of Canadian identity more from literature than from personal knowledge.

The first books I read that taught me something about the spirit and daily life of the pioneers who opened up the American (and Canadian) West were Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s “Little House” books. Wilder’s books tell the story of her childhood as she moves West with her family in a series of covered wagon trips. Reading the sixth book in the series, The Long Winter, I learned that even in a rich country like the United States, whose Eastern states were cultured and sophisticated by the 1880s, people could still starve in the American West when a harsh winter stopped the trains from getting through. (By then, the buffalo were being decimated, an issue that Wilder’s books largely ignore. In contrast, Huston’s Plainsong addresses the issue of how Native Americans were treated; in fact the love of Paddon’s life is a half-breed woman.)

As I got older, I read other Canadian and American classics that taught me more about harsh times in those young nations’ histories: Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind, Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House, and short stories (whose names I don’t remember) set on the bleak and empty prairies. What must it have been like for people to see no one other than their own family members for months at a time? To be completely self-reliant even in times of drought, childbirth, and medical emergencies? I don’t think we, now, can even imagine the loneliness and brutal conditions faced by the early prairie settlers.

Plainsong shares, with the classics I’ve mentioned above, the emotional appeal of complicated characters who are trapped by their historical and geographical settings. The reminded me how much reading has shaped my knowledge of my world, and more specifically, how it contributed to my understanding of what a “Canadian identity” is.

More than that, Plainsong reminded me of the pure pleasure of reading, of being drawn into a world of fictional characters that seems real. Isn’t this the easiest way to learn? I wonder how many young people still read books that take them into the lives of previous generations. And even though I love all the possibilities that the online world has opened up for communication, entertainment, and learning, I feel some regret that my time spent online has caused me to almost abandon my long hours of reading.

Deep reading: David Shields’ How Literature Saved My Life

How many of us read novels anymore? How many of us read “difficult” books that force us to stop, think, re-read, argue with the author inside our heads? How many of us can still become obsessed by a book?

I don’t know the answers to these questions; I only know that over two months ago I was drawn into the orbit of David Shields’ book How Literature Saved My Life when I read a review about it in The Globe and Mail by André Alexis. The review itself was worthy of a blog post, but I decided to hold off until after I had read the book. Ever since then, I’ve been reading, re-reading, and trying to figure out how to write about it. Being engaged with a book’s ideas for over two months can count as an obsession, I think.

I can’t describe How Literature Saved My Life better than Alexis does in his review.

    …a book that relentlessly relates instances or art (books and movies in particular) to the life of the critic. We have here a book in which a man seeks passionately to discover the personally relevant in art while, at the same time, looking for that thing (“truth” you could call it, I suppose) that transcends the personal, that allows for a break from the self.

Shields is the kind of reader who always wants to make connections between his personal experience and what he is reading. In view of this, I found it curious that Alexis, in his review, prefaces some of his comments by writing, “I hate inserting the personal in assessing a book…”

And I immediately had the reaction—“But I always do that! What’s wrong that?”

Then, after I read How Literature Saved My Life, I thought about the irony of Alexis “apologizing” for being personal in the context of a book that makes all criticism personal—the book’s title doesn’t lie about its intentions.

While struggling (at times) with A How Literature Saved My Life, I realized that both Shields and Alexis are more sophisticated, experienced, and cynical readers than I am. But Alexis is different from Shields. In The Globe and Mail review Alexis states, “It has been a long time since I expected anything of literature. I accept that what writers do is only tentatively meaningful or significant.”

This is a pretty cynical remark from a writer, I thought! Alexis goes on to write, “I’m more interested in what I might be able to do with literature than what literature does with me.”

It makes sense that a writer cares about what he “might be able to do with literature,” but I was still surprised that a writer wouldn’t be immensely involved in others’ writing as well. Yet though Alexis describes How Literature Saved My Life as “one of the oddest books I’ve read,” he is full of praise for it, and admits to being grateful that the book provoked him to ask, “Well, what is it we do when we read?”

Shields certainly makes it clear why he reads and what it is that he does when he reads.

He reminds us of Samuel Johnson’s words: “A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it.”

Shields rejects Johnson’s first reason for reading books; he finds “books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time.” For Shields, reading is all about the second reason. He rejects not only “escapist” books but is repelled by what he calls the “tidy coherence” of traditional novels. He writes that this coherence “belies the chaos and entropy that surround and inhibit and overwhelm us. I want work that…foregrounds the question of how the writer solves being alive.” [italics mine]

Shields is obsessed with the “problem” of how we live when we know that death awaits us no matter what we do. How do we make our lives meaningful and not despair?

Knowing why Shields reads, it’s no surprise that he’s a big fan of David Foster Wallace.

Quote from David Foster Wallace

Shields goes on to quote Wallace at greater length:

    I strongly suspect a big part of a writer’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

Shields’ reaction to the above is: “The only books I truly love do exactly this—”

Shields mentions Wallace’s most famous works, including the mind-boggling fiction opus Infinite Jest (1996). He gives his personal take on Wallace’s best-known essay, “Shipping Out” (from his first non-fiction book, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997).

[As an aside, I’d like to add my own reaction to Wallace’s work: I tried to read Infinite Jest a few years ago. I spent months immersed in it. I recognized Wallace’s genius; I was fascinated by the book, its obsessive, indulgent detail and perverse humour, but I had to give up halfway through—it was too much. On the other hand, I loved all the essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again—they were small “bites” of Wallace that my relatively “normal” intellect could handle. After reading “Shipping Out” I questioned whether I would ever go on a cruise.]

Of course, the irony is that literature couldn’t save Wallace; he committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46.

[Aside #2: It seems terribly wrong that a mind as brilliant as Wallace’s could choose to extinguish itself. He had suffered from clinical depression for over 20 years.]

“All great books wind up with the writer getting his teeth bashed in”

The above is the heading Shields uses for the section in his book describing the “fifty-five works I swear by.”

This section is wild, intimidating, inspirational, educational. It reflects what you could call either Shields’ morbid cynicism or relentless honesty about the human condition. His choices seem largely dependent on his personal relationships with the books; how are they relevant to him?

Shields reminds us that Tolstoy said the purpose of art is to transfer feeling from one person to another. Shields wants writing that does more than that. He describes a kind of writing called collage. In collage, the movements of the writer’s mind aren’t merely entangled with the work’s meaning, they are the work’s meaning. Collage is more than a transfer of feeling; it’s a transfer of consciousness. This is what Shields is after, and many of the books he has loved are collage-style (as is How Literature Saved My Life itself).

I haven’t read many of Shields’ Top 55, but his descriptions and quotes from many of them are alluring.

His biggest book obsession is with Renata Adler’s Speedboat, about which he comments, “I can’t read it anymore. It’s one book I’ve read so many times that I feel, absurdly, as if I’ve written it…I learned how to write by reading that book until the spine broke.”

He calls Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams her best book because of what one of its characters says: “There is only one valid theme in literature. Life will disappoint you.”

He loves Annie Dillard’s advice about writing:

Quote from Annie Dillard

Shields provides examples of works of art whose richest material is not the apparent “subject” or the actual plot. For example, Ross McElwee’s film Bright Leaves “pretends to be about his conflicted relation to his family’s tobacco farm, whereas it’s really about the way in which we all will do anything—make a movie, smoke cigarettes, collect film stills, build a birdhouse, hold a lifelong torch for someone, find religion—to try to get beyond ourselves.”

Similarly, Frederick Barthelme’s ninth book, The Brothers, has a complicated plot that includes familiar Barthelme themes about middle-aged men’s ennui, divorces, relationships with younger women, etc., but “the novel’s true subject is Del’s attempt to reclaim his presence in the world by seeing it as breathtaking, as beautiful.”

Del says at the end of the book, “it was one of those nights when the air is like a glove exactly the shape of your body.”

Now that is a breathtaking and beautiful sentence.

My reactions to How Literature Saved My Life

I can deeply admire Shields’ writing, his humour, and his insights into great books without wholly sharing or understanding this statement: “We live in a culture that is completely mediated and artificial, rendering us (me anyway; you, too?) exceedingly distracted, bored, and numb.”

I agree that our culture provides us with endless choices and distractions. But a lot of the choices are stimulating and eye-opening. We can use self-control to avoid trivial distractions—maybe some people are better at this than others. Am I bored? Never. Am I numb? Never. I don’t even understand why Shields feels this way.

One of my biggest disagreements with Shields is his assessment of escapist literature and even the traditional novel. For me, one of the saddest paragraphs of the book was this one:

    Forms evolve. Forms are there to serve the culture, and when they die, they die for a good reason—or so I have to believe, the novel having long since gone dark for me…

Has technology made the novel irrelevant?

According to Shields, the novel “was invented to access interiority”. In a culture where young people communicate mainly through social media and don’t seem to have the old notions about privacy, what purpose does the novel serve?

His other criticism of the novel is that “It’s nearly impossible now to tell a story that isn’t completely familiar and predictable.”

Do the above points mean the novel is no longer relevant? I think not. I’ll bet the vast majority of readers can still be enthralled by a well-told story. Maybe I’m a less jaded and more easily entertained reader than Shields, but to me it doesn’t matter if the great universal themes are repeated. Writers build new stories and new characters around these themes and tell their story using a unique voice; that’s good enough for me.

Technology, social media, and new forms of communication

Shields believes that readers’ short attention span is incompatible with reading a traditional novel.

It’s certain that new forms of writing and communicating, made possible by the Internet, social media, e-devices, and other technologies, are competing for readers’ attention. I’ll admit I was astonished by this factoid: “By far the most popular novels of our era are interactive, plot-driven video games: 11 million people subscribe to World of Warcraft alone…”

Shields is cynical about the power of the Internet. He comments, “The power of the technology cancels itself out via its own ubiquity. Nothing really changes: the individual’s ability to project his message or throw his weight around remains miniscule.”

I don’t agree, though the Internet’s potential is a double-edged sword. It gives us all control of our own work and the way it’s marketed; there is the possibility of gaining a huge global audience, but at the same time we’re competing with a global pool of writers in a sea of distractions. You have to be gifted and pushy to get noticed, but it’s possible to be noticed by large numbers of people.

Can writing done in blogs and other forms of social media lead to the creation of good books? Rarely, says Shields, but it does happen, and he cites Justin Halpern’s Shit My Dad Says as an example. Shields admires the immediacy and “naked feeling” of the blog form. He says:

    Books, if they want to survive, need to figure out how to coexist with contemporary culture and catalyze the same energies for literary purposes…Concision is crucial to contemporary art…The paragraph-by-paragraph sizzle is everything. [italics mine]

Does How Literature Saved My Life have that “paragraph-by-paragraph sizzle”?

Is it a “successful” book in today’s multimedia-heavy culture?

The answer, paradoxically, is yes and no. Yes, the book has concision, as Shields breaks it down into the short sections typical of a collage-style work. Yes, it has sizzle. Shields writes with brilliance and wit as he mines his own sexual experiences, character flaws and most despairing moments to illustrate his points.

But it would be wrong to equate “concise” with “easy”. Make no mistake, this is a book for readers who are akin to Shields himself, readers who are unafraid to confront the most difficult questions of what it means to be human, readers who find consolation rather than discomfort when exposed to a writer’s most intimate thoughts. This is a book for readers willing to think deeply and to be guided, by Shields’ quirky personal taste, to more “deep reading”.

Shields’ conclusion is a fitting summary of his book’s exploration:

    I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this—which is what makes it essential.

Ivan Klíma’s The Ultimate Intimacy tackles the heaviest moral dilemmas

The Ultimate Intimacy
by Ivan Klíma

The Ultimate Intimacy by Ivan Klima book cover

The protagonist of this book, a priest named Daniel, is tormented by two of humanity’s most controversial questions:

First: Is there a God who hears us, sees us, and grants us the possibility of everlasting life? Did he come to Earth in human form? Did he die, was resurrected, and ascended into heaven that we might do the same?

Second: (This is a more modern dilemma that disturbs only some human cultures, including ours):

Is it possible to love two people with all your heart? to be bound to both? How can you work out the tangles of two simultaneous/separate romantic, sexual, parental, and domestic attachments? Is there any moral solution?

As the story opens, Daniel has a contented marriage with his wife Hana. They have two children, and Hana has always been a good mother to Eva, Daniel’s daughter from his first wife, Jitka, who died when Eva was a baby.

Two events precipitate Daniel’s wrestling with his the very foundations of his spiritual belief. His mother’s death is the first. Ironically, on the very day of her funeral, a married woman he can’t help but fall in love with—Bára—insinuates herself into his life. The irony is magnified by the fact that Bára is drawn to Daniel for what she sees as his spiritual conviction and goodness; yet it is his unshakeable attachment to Bára and his continued unfaithfulness and deception towards his wife that unhinges him spiritually.

With Bára, Daniel finds an intimacy unknown to him since the death of his first wife, an intimacy he never expected to experience again. Yet he still loves Hana, and is strongly bound to her and his children not only by love but by duty and his moral beliefs.

His guilt and confusion force him to examine his religious beliefs. Suddenly, he realizes he has lost all conviction for the very ideas and words that he preaches to others and uses to comfort them.

The Ultimate Intimacy is a fearless book because it accepts and exposes the ambivalence in human behaviour, the absence of black-and-white morality, the truth that in some situations there is no choice that will avoid inflicting hurt and injustice.

The reader is drawn into the depths of Daniel’s and Bára’s minds as the text shifts from narrative, to Daniel’s journal, to letters (mostly to and from Daniel and Bára, but also from other significant people in their lives). Yet even with these insights, the characters and their motives remain partially inexplicable. Klíma can be pitiless in his exposure of human frailty and irrationality, especially during the decline of old age.

Klíma saves the greatest irony of all for the book’s conclusion. The ending surprised me, but it was also oddly perfect and satisfying—because it was an uncompromising refusal to answer all the questions the novel had raised.

Note: The English version of The Ultimate Intimacy, (translated from the Czech), was published in 1997.

I’d like to quote an excerpt from the author’s foreward to The Ultimate Intimacy:

After a lifetime’s experience of prose writing, it is my considered opinion that the most authentic people and stories are those that emerge from the author’s imagination.

How I choose books to read

Reading is just another activity that has been hugely changed by computers and other entertainment technology.

I’m writing this post for those of you who still read books—or have the ambition to read them. I don’t believe people will ever stop reading books. Nor will print books die out. Visual and interactive media are compelling forms of communication that have enriched our lives and our ways of telling stories. Yet I have faith that the combined power of well-crafted words and readers’ imaginations will ensure the enduring popularity of simple printed books.

Technology has affected not only the formats of what we read, but how we choose our books and other reading materials. In this post, I’d like to share how I choose my books.

Cover of How Literature Changed My Life by David Shields

Andre Alexis’ review of this book gave me an “I can’t wait to read this!” reaction.

1) I read book reviews, mainly from the weekend edition of The Globe and Mail. I thoroughly enjoy reading the book reviews in the Arts section of The Globe. I don’t buy many books. Since reviewed books are typically new, I enter their names and authors on my computer’s “books to read” list. I read them when they arrive at the library, or I ask for them for Christmas gifts. Often the reviews themselves are extremely thought-provoking and well-written. Occasionally, I’m so galvanized by a book review that I’ll buy the book immediately. For example, Globe critic André Alexis’ take on How Literature Changed my Life, by David Shields, was a fascinating read on its own. I tried to get the book at my local Chapters but they hadn’t yet received it.

Cover of Astray by Emma Donoghue

After reading Emma Donoghue’s “Room”, I was eager to read anything else by this astoundingly good writer. I found “Astray” in the 7-day loan section. I had to fight with the librarian to let me take it out, because it was severely water-damaged.

2) I browse at my local library. I do two types of browsing. The first is simply scanning the “new” and “express” books sections. If I see a book that I want (after using method #1 above), I check it out.

The second type of library browsing requires more time, but it’s (to me at least) very pleasurable and almost a lost art these days. That is browsing randomly amongst the shelves of books, taking out books that I’m attracted to because of their titles, or because I recognize a familiar author’s name, or because I start reading the summary or the blurbs and get ensnared. This kind of browsing goes on until my time runs out, or until I have a stack of at least three or four books. Then I leave the library feeling like a rich person. I’m filled with anticipation about the pages soon to be devoured.

The great advantage of this kind of “random browsing” is its unpredictability. You never know what unfamiliar or obscure books you will discover. These may be books that haven’t been mentioned in any mainstream media. They may be books that are old and wouldn’t be available in any bookstore now. They come with not only an older style of language, but with different smells and page textures than newer books. Maybe they have comments penciled into their margins by a reader long dead now.

A randomly-chosen book could get you to open your mind to a subject you’ve never been exposed to or curious about before. And who knows where that could lead?

3) I browse at Chapters. There is something enticing about being surrounded by attractive new books. I like browsing at Chapters (but see my pet peeve*). However, I try to resist the urge to buy every book I’d like to read. Browsing in a bookstore is similar to browsing in a library in that you can do the “easy” browsing in the front areas where the heavily marketed books are, or you can browse in the stacks where you might find older “treasures”. One of the differences, of course, is that you won’t find any truly old books in Chapters.I haven’t included second-hand bookstores as an inspiration for my book choices, but that’s simply because I don’t have such a store anywhere near where I live.

*Pet peeve: It’s especially irritating to shop at Chapters before Christmas. I find that my browsing is so frequently interrupted by “assistants” that I don’t even have time to read a book cover or a blurb to get an idea what a book is about. If I needed help I would ask one of the 100 or so floor-drones for it.

Cover of Le Ton beau de Marot

“Le Ton beau de Marot” includes 88 wildly diverse translations of a 16th-century French poem—but so much more!

Random browsing in Chapters has led me to numerous treasures. I want to rave about two examples here: both are astounding acts of creativity. They demonstrate how a writer can focus on a topic or person that he is obsessed with, and follow that obsession to the absolute limits of genius. When I read these books, I experience the privilege and excitement of being drawn into worlds I never knew existed.

In Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, Douglas R. Hofstadter starts with the goal of translating a short medieval French poem and expands it into a 570-page book that is bursting with the joy, exuberance, and music the author finds in language. Your appreciation of the book will be greater if you have some understanding of French (as I do at an intermediate level), but even without that you will be dazzled by Hofstadter’s insights about the creative art of translation. Starting with the anagram “translation = lost in an art”, this book is a challenging intellectual journey; surprising, delightful, and hugely rewarding. Anything I could write in praise of this book would be inadequate.

Cover of Ha!

Gordon Sheppard’s “Ha!” is a tribute to Quebec separatist writer Hubert Aquin. Its creation took 25 years.

A second “treasure” that I found by accident at Chapters was a strange, unconventional book whose cover blurbs intrigued me irresistibly: Ha! A Self-Murder Mystery, by Gordon Sheppard. Sheppard, a well-known Canadian writer, artist and filmmaker in the ’70s, spent 25 years creating this almost-900-page book that Quill & Quire reviewer Nicholas Dinka calls a “genre-busting beast.” (Read Dinka’s review of Ha! here.) Ha! is an investigation into the 1977 suicide of Sheppard’s friend Hubert Aquin, a Quebec separatist writer. The book is presented entirely as a series of interviews with many of Aquin’s friends and acquaintances, plus quotations from Flaubert, Joyce, and Dante, and images from artistic geniuses like da Vinci and Goya. According to Dinka, Sheppard’s purpose is not only to understand the life, death and work of Hubert Aquin, but to ask difficult questions about the “potentially destructive struggle” of every artist’s life.

4) I follow suggestions from friends whose opinions I respect, whether I’m talking to them in person or just see one of their comments online.

5) My curiosity about a book is re-awakened after seeing the movie version. Usually I’ve read the book before I see the movie. The movie often compels me to go back and read the book. I’m fascinated by the creative process that screenwriters and directors go through as they make decisions about how to transform a book into a movie. This must be especially difficult when a very long book (like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) has to be reduced to a two-hour film.

Cover of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

The recent movie version with its theatrical effects did justice to Tolstoy’s great novel, but had to omit much of the parallel love story of Lenin and Kitty.

What I almost never do

I know it’s easy to let your computer choose your books for you. A site like Amazon.com recommends books for you based on data it’s aggregated about your browsing, purchasing, and reading habits. Writer and publisher David Gaughram’s states in his recent blog post that Amazon is considered to be the best of these book e-commerce sites. The reason, he says, is that Amazon shows you the book you are most likely to buy, without taking price or the author’s history/reputation into account. For this reason, self-publishers fare better on Amazon, according to Gaughran.

Why don’t I like letting Amazon choose my books for me? Because it doesn’t allow for that random, unpredictable discovery of books I would never plan to read. Also, there’s an irrational part of me that is revolted by the idea that a computer can understand my intellect and how I want to feed it. (Even though I’m not denying that Amazon’s choices would probably satisfy me very well.)

How do you choose books to read?

Have I left out anything important?

Does anyone have a book to rave about?