Nurturing the world that surrounds a book
A scarcity! Supply-chain issues. Hello again.
There goes September and a good deal of October too, blammo, already memory. The ash tree’s leaves form a wet carpet over the front yard. Half a pumpkin turned into soup. The fact of soup, of a furnace. I hope so far this season you’ve been blessed with a spare inbox, a brilliant leaf show, soup, and a heat source. I hope you’ve been one of the lucky ones.
Oh actual world! This dearth of missives caused by a stretch of outwardness, of attention to the outward: reading from my book beside rivers and in community halls, attending events, planning events, sharing time around tables with friends, chatting with all manner of folks, spending time with people I love, returning to the places my family calls home, standing behind bookfair tables, horsing about with nephews and new puppies. All this overdue, now-infrequent stuff. In there somewhere I took part in planting fruit trees in a park down the street from my house. I made some first attempts at translating letters to my baba from her siblings and nieces in Ukraine. I helped put together and edit another 160 pages of literary journal. I made borshch and carrot pie. I watch some baseball. I turned 46.
And I heard, while out in the world among the literary types, an ongoing refrain, mixed in with the general sense of relief and joy at being out at things, at readings, festivals, book fairs, launches: What do we do about the vanishing book review? What to make of the Griffin Prize? What of the Bookstagram, the Booktok, these niche online places? What is this atmosphere we’re emerging into? How do we reach people? How does a book reach people? How do we do this now?
This very newsletter has been, in part, a way for me to approach this conundrum, though more crucially it has been a way to revolve around a notion for a short spell. A way to think, or turn the mind toward something. A way to be read. I’m grateful that you’re here with me.
What are our uncertainties actually getting at? Is it the whole damn ride we’re worried about? Have we forgotten more than we expected? Is this another case of our killing systems wreaking their havoc on all that, together, makes an ecosystem? A book in a library? A librarian with an acquisition request and the budget to fulfill it? Someone in school, training to be a librarian? The public lending right? Perusal of the stacks? Presence of stacks? Being drawn to the book next to the one you’re after? The art of browsing? Hand-selling? Chain bookstores that aren’t trying to get out of the book business? Indie bookstores that carry the best books? The trove jammed within a used bookstore? The window display made with enthusiasm? The person behind the counter as eager as you are or more so about the books you’re taking home? The tables of books in a Costco? The racks in a drugstore, an airport? A small publisher with an exciting list? A new publisher looking for new work? A big publisher publishing good and not just popular books? Seeing your book out in the wild? Sneakily facing your book in a bookstore? Having some gigs lined up? A few prepared words on a piece of paper? Speaking into a mic? Reading to a group of people? Hosting a reading? Putting out the snacks? Whipping together the poster? Dinner beforehand? Drinks after? Sitting in an audience? Being read to? That feeling of calm when someone reads to you? An audience’s stillness when they’re listening? Sending the fan letter, the note of appreciation to the author? Writing in response to a thing you’ve read? Having your book signed? Telling a writer what the work means to you while you’re having your book signed? Asking someone what they’re reading? Talking about a good book together? Recommending an author to a stranger? Posting about a book? Writing a long review? Reading a long review? Reading a newspaper’s book section? Reading a journal, a magazine? Poring over the fall lists, the spring lists? Looking up everyone on the award shortlist? Taking a class? Joining a club? Attending a lecture? Reading together? Taking a book to the park? Reading to someone? Underlining a passage? Reading before bed? Reading an author you’ve never read? Reading your favourite author? Rereading? Reading generously, widely? Reading amid the chaos? Reading to combat chaos? Reading?
Is it the whole damn ride we’re worried about?
This season, getting the sea legs back, inhaling new atmosphere, has me thinking about the universe of small, unchronicled gestures between people, what those gestures allow, how we build culture and community from them. I noted a general lack of individual reportage at the literary events I’ve been at: very few phones aimed, few heads in that telltale downward position. People listening during, doing that one thing, not so quick to give this time over to the social-media conglomerates. I note here that this could very well be more of a comment on the types of events I’ve been at. Could also be I’ve become a geezer. If you’ve been wading back into literary events, what have you seen? If you’ve been spending time at virtual events, what are the gestures there? Is there some useful relation between the two? Here’s a button, in case you’d like to contribute to this completely informal behavioural study:
Perhaps we’ve been craving immersion, or doing an uncertain, high-stakes kind of basking in immersion’s return. Something that still pops to mind now and then is that you’d so rarely catch a journalist out covering any of these events any more. This has been at the root of the line of questions I’ve been hearing from other writers and book folks, and echoing myself. It seems solely up to the individual now—we are all our own cultural reporter—and in certain realms that reportage has been so starkly, invasively commodified, and we’re not getting a cut. And we’re just busy doing community again, that nourishing thing, both anathema and prey to that commodification. The problem of transforming our crucial gestures into content. Perhaps we’re craving, urgently, these deeper connections, and our instinct is to protect them.
The other way this fall has been momentous: three of my literary heroes, three exemplars, three people whose work and words have taught me so much about writing and personhood all have books out this season: Myrna Kostash, Dionne Brand, and Jan Zwicky. I’m going to dip into their books in the coming weeks and bring up some shimmering flecks for you to examine. We might solve some of our present world’s writerly conundrums this way, who knows. Stay tuned.
And I’ll be taking part in a few more of these in-the-world events before the year is out, the next one at the Words Festival on my old stomping grounds of London (Ontario), that wonderfully literary city, reading with Madhur Anand, November 5. It’ll be both in-person and online. Hope to see you there.
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