Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


A Band of Books

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A lot of readers were a little shaken this past February at the train wreck of a debate on the first day of Canada Reads, CBC’s annual book showdown. For the few who haven’t encountered this contest, here’s the Coles Notes version: five panelists each champion a particular book, and each day ends with one title being voted off the list until a final book emerges—that’s the title all Canada should read.

Even though the whole project has a Survivor-style set-up, somehow everyone was shocked this year when the debate actually got down-and-dirty. It turns out Canadian are more protective of their books—and writers—than you might guess.

I’m glad of that. Those who continue to forecast the end of the book are quick to assert that people just aren’t reading any more—apparently our time is too crowded and we are too wired and impatient to put up with this kind of solitary story-telling. But the fact that book sales of the Canada Reads titles spike markedly every year suggests that people actually are reading. The same thing happens after literary awards too. People do want to read books they’re hearing about.

I think Canada Reads depends on a false premise that is finally not all that useful to books or their readers. The five titles up for debate this year are all extraordinary books—lively, intelligent, fascinating, challenging, potentially transformative. To be pressed to choose one over all the others is like sitting down to a beautiful meal and eating only the peas.

I actually think jazz offers a far better model. When a great band is cooking along, you are rewarded by terrific solos which give you a chance to hear what’s unique and textured about each performer. The quirks, the particularity, the uniqueness of each individual—those things define the players, but we only really grasp those things because the players are in contact with one another. Context helps us hear better.

To me, Canada Reads is like a great band. The contest model suggests we need to choose one over another. (And every year the panelists struggle to identify the criteria of that decision: which book is best? most readable? most far-reaching? most Canadian?) But if a list is well-made, as this one always is, every book will have its own virtuosity and character and voice.

Context helps readers hear better too, and these books benefit from being in company with one another—and that’s really the lifeblood of the debates. It’s not really the battle to the finish that most listeners appreciate. It’s the chance to hear invested people bring their smarts and their hearts to the table and really talk about what different books do to them and for them.

I’ve learned a lot over the year from passionate readers—including the Canada Reads panelists. After hearing the debates, I would rather read all five than just one…

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