Who's Reading Along with Canada Reads?
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Who’s Reading Along with Canada Reads?

Flipping through the Canada Reads finalists at the Toronto Reference Library.

Mention “CanLit” in promotions for an event, and see who shows up. Crickets? Spoken about quietly or in exasperation, Canadian literature often rides a low tide of interest.
But the CBC, one of its cheerleaders, brings literary discussion to a competitive level once a year with annual book battle Canada Reads, now celebrating its tenth anniversary. This year the hand-picked panel of celebrity judges will choose the most essential Canadian novel of the past decade. But that’s not the only 2011 innovation.The CBC has opened up the judging process to the public, via online voting. In October, online participants created a list of their top forty books; another round of public voting whittled that down to ten. Afterward, the Canada Reads panelists whittled these down to a list of five finalists, with each choosing a novel to champion.
In anticipation of the official debate and to engage Toronto’s readers, the Toronto Reference Library hosted a fete, open to the public, on February 4. So, returning to our initial question about CanLit: who shows up?

Authors on the line (left to right): Jeff Lemire, Terry Fallis, Eleanor Wachtel (representing Carol Shields), and Angie Abdou.

Groups in the city like the Locke Tuesday Night book club at TPL’s Locke Branch have followed the Canada Reads list closely. “I don’t think there is such a thing as an ‘essential’ Canadian book,” says book club member Carol Edgar. “But it’s fun to pretend that there is. What is important is that [Canada Reads] gets Canadians, at least those who have an interest in books, particularly novels, to have a focus, and for that focus to be Canadian.” She adds, tellingly: “I might otherwise not have read any Canadian books last year.”
Marlene Sorensen also attends the Locke Book Club. But unlike with Edgar, she read all the finalists last year—in fact, she reads them every year. Sorensen agrees with Edgar’s assertion that none of the finalists could serve as the one book all Canadians should read. “I think of people of all ages being interested, both male and female, and a book that discusses things that should be of interest to all people.”
Many readers of CanLit are those who stick to paper pages; Sorensen doesn’t even have email. Still, the people behind the event made a noticeable effort to appeal to an online community. Ann Jansen, senior producer of CBC Books and Canada Reads, explains: “We wanted to do something special to mark our tenth season. We had a very engaged online audience, people who became involved after the books were announced each year. We wanted to get the public in on the conversation at an earlier point.” (With appealing to a broader audience in mind, it’s no surprise that, for the first time, a graphic novel is among this year’s list of finalists.) And while Edgar and Sorensen represent a less-digital segment of readers, others are creating Twibbons for their author of choice or blogging about notable Canada Reads controversies.

The CBC’s Mary Ito speaks with Mary Sharpe, director of midwifery education at Ryerson University, who represented Ami McKay’s The Birth House.

Classically, Canada Reads is also about a judging panel of Canadian stars; this year, it includes interior design maven Debbie Travis and CNN chief business correspondent Ali Velshi. “Star power is important in opening our discussion about books to a new and wider audience. We look for people from different walks of life, who will bring their fans with them,” Jansen says. And so, as a result, most judges are not experts on literature.”People are interested in finding out what their favourite celebrities have to say about books. And everyone’s an expert on the books they love.”
Sorensen, who points out she is a loyal CBC listener, disagrees and thinks that people who work in the literary world would make better judges. “They’re more involved in books and have probably read a lot more books than some. I mean, I don’t know how many books these judges have read and how wide a reader they are.”
While the debate over who should judge continues off the air, the five panelists and host Jian Ghomeshi began their broadcast battle yesterday (and voted out Essex County), but today and tomorrow you can catch them on CBC Radio One at 11 a..m. (reairing at 8 p.m.). And this year, for the first time, the debates will be video-streamed here, with a chat option for participants to leave comments during the discussion. Lastly, there’s an option to attend the debates by signing up here.
Photos by Valerie Lam/Torontoist.

CORRECTION: February 9, 2011, 3:00 PM In the caption of the last photo of this post, the woman speaking to Mary Ito was misidentified as author Ami McKay. In fact, she is a midwifery professor who was speaking about McKay’s book at the event.