Canada Reads gets its mojo back

Canada Reads

I admit I went into Canada Reads 2013 with a certain degree of trepidation and even fatigue this year. I’ve followed it with enthusiasm since its inception in 2002, typically tuning in to the debates having read at least some if not all of the books. I’ve always delighted in the unabashedly nerdy and quintessentially Canadian celebration of books and reading as the focal point of an ongoing radio/television/interwebs series/event. This was captured perfectly by a tweet from the Canada Reads 2013 moderator after things wrapped up on Valentine’s Day:

@jianghomeshi From an American friend: “only in Canada would you have a reality show about reading books.” Yep. And proudly so. 🙂

But after 2012, I don’t think I was alone in feeling a little disenchanted by the whole enterprise. The multi-tiered selection process (which, admittedly, I contributed my two cents’ worth to …) seemed interminable. As in 2011, the selection process also had a whiff of social media boosterism shading into overt lobbying that was uncomfortable at times. Along with that, there was increasing questioning of what exactly constituted the “Can” in the CanLit the program was supposed to bolster. (Terry Fallis wrote about it here.) And then the 2012 debates themselves tipped pretty shamelessly into the theatrical. This was perhaps unwittingly exacerbated by the subject matter that year being works of non-fiction, affording at least one vociferous panelist the excuse to level personal attacks against authors who were ostensibly one and the same with the real-life characters in their books. It wasn’t about the books for much of the debates – it was gratuitous showmanship writ large, and it left readers ill at ease and other writers and commentators often furious (for example: With Canada Reads, the CBC is bottom-feeding on culture by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer in The Globe and Mail.)

For CanLit lovers, hope always springs eternal though, so I was cautiously prepared to try to engage again in 2013. I decided that I would take part in the discussions that focused on the books. CBC Books provided ample opportunities to do just that via hosted Twitter chats and other events and activities. I followed other readers’ reviews and articles and had myself a grand time just thinking about the merits of the books, and the dedication and creativity of the authors. I also decided I would leave it at that if the debates kicked off with any hints that it was going to go off the rails again. I said my piece here about how pleased I was with the strengths of all of the finalist books – any of them was a justifiable and defensible winner – and I went into it on February 11th with great optimism. I was not disappointed. In fact, I was hugely impressed.

While all of the 2013 books were strong, the Canada Reads outcome is alchemy of book and defender, with a dash or two of strategy and voting kismet. Much as the theatrics overtook the actual book debates last year, I don’t begrudge the show some drama … well, because it is a show. But this year, the drama that emerged was in service to the books, products of the passion, intellect and wiles of a group of gracious, collegial but still lively defenders. (OK, Ron MacLean could’ve toned down the puns just a bit …)

One theatrical element in the Canada Reads formula is the moment when everyone gasps, when the book that is seemingly most beloved gets taken down by some vagary in the voting or by some hinted at behind-the-scenes dealing gone awry. This rendition of Canada Reads was no different, but the seemingly unexpected early departure of Indian Horse actually transpired very organically, transparently and germanely. Panelist Charlotte Gray took laser aim at the book’s relative shortcomings – not at the author or the worthy themes of the book, but at the book’s flaws in written execution. So, the surprise wasn’t really a surprise, nor does it mean disaster and obscurity for the “voted off” book. Indian Horse has and will continue to do just fine, as will all of the books. Neither does it mean that the voting format should be reconsidered. The suggestion that the moderator should cast a deciding vote in ties subverts the role of the moderator … who wears his bookish heart on his sleeve just a little bit as it is.

The culmination of Canada Reads 2013 was genuinely suspenseful and satisfying. Two well-matched and articulate defenders (actor/screenwriter Jay Baruchel and comedian Trent McClellan) championed books (Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan and February by Lisa Moore) with connections to time and place that are particularly poignant in this cold month of February. Their closing comments were some of the best of a crop of quotable quotes by all of the panelists this year.

Canada Reads will have to grapple again next year with a theme or construct that will captivate readers and will ultimately scale to something relevant for new prospective readers across Canada. It’s going to be difficult for the show to top the charm, chemistry and acumen of this year’s panelists. But again, I’m not alone in knowing I’ll be looking with renewed interest at the next rendition of Canada Reads, and the next intriguing set of book and defender match-ups.

For a second year, an added enjoyable dimension to Canada Reads has been the challenge that Julie Wilson (aka BookMadam) and I concocted. At the time of the reveal of the five finalists, we wrote down our predictions of the order in which we thought the books would be voted off. Both of us chose a literacy cause to champion, and when the winning book was announced, whoever least accurately predicted the outcome had to make a donation to the cause of choice of she who more accurately predicted the outcome. (We ended up tying, so both charities benefited.)

This year I teamed up with Allegra Young (@ayoungvoice). Behold our predictions:

So, my predictions weren’t bad but hello! Ms Young completed nailed the entire sequence in which the books were voted off until February emerged victorious. As a result, I’m happily making a donation to Allegra’s charitable choice, Children’s Book Bank.

Joining us for the Canada Reads challenge this year were Carrie Macmillan (@Cmacmizzle) and Jeanne Duperreault (@jaduperreault). They report that their predictions were tied: they both got the placing of February, Indian Horse and The Age of Hope correct, but switched Two Solitudes and Away. So, they’re both going to donate to their respective causes – STELLAA (Stella’s Training, Education, Literacy, Learning and Academic Assistance) and First Book Canada.

It’s safe to say there were a lot of Canada Reads winners this year.

One thought on “Canada Reads gets its mojo back

  1. Pingback: 2013 reading list (so far) | bookgaga

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