Canada Reads 2014 – refreshed, inspired, re-energized

Canada Reads

This was a palate cleanser year for me with respect to Canada Reads, an annual Canadian literary event I’ve followed regularly since its inception in 2002. (Here’s a handy summary of the books, book defenders, moderators and more, including the parallel lineups for the French language equivalent, Le Combat des livres.) I’ve been most engaged in the books, the discussions and the featured debates since 2011, the year the event was extended to invite more online participation.

Perhaps I’ve been so engaged since then that I’ll admit, I experienced a touch of Canada Reads fatigue going into the ramp-up to this year’s debates. I’d mused a year earlier …

“… you know, part of me wishes I could go into the debate one of these times to be convinced without having read any of them, or to test with some purity whether the debates stand on their own as a truly useful way of being introduced to the books. Of course, the debates can’t help but be predicated on some beforehand knowledge of the books and authors. Anyhow, it’s not how Canada Reads books have come to be marketed nowadays, is it? The five-book packages and bookstore displays started in November, and we’re meant to respond. Still, don’t you think it’d be an interesting approach to learning about the books to intentionally go in blind one year?” (from Some thoughts on Canada Reads Eve [February 9, 2013])

So, that’s what I did this year.

Taking this approach, I went into the debates feeling refreshed, with some new perspectives and very curious to see how the celebrity defenders were going to do their jobs. I’ll also admit that I emerged from the 2014 Canada Reads debates feeling entertained, challenged and energized, having had my thoughts about the contending books and subject matter provoked in all sorts of positive ways.

Bearing in mind that Canada Reads is not just a battle of books, but the alchemy of theme, book, defender, strategy and a dollop or two of the unexpected, the 2014 edition delivered … and some. The two final defenders – Wab Kinew, championing Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda and Samantha Bee, championing Rawi Hage’s Cockroach – were two of the most determined, articulate, well prepared and quick thinking combatants the program has ever seen (Bee’s periodic dips into weepiness notwithstanding). Add to that the eminence, eloquence, gravitas and revelatory humour of statesman Stephen Lewis, and the program boasted some of the most balanced, respectful and riveting Canada Reads exchanges ever, such as the Kinew-Lewis debate about violence and torture in The Orenda.

You could almost put aside the books here and argue that the arguments themselves were the most potent and inspiring aspects of this year’s program.

Cockroach, by Rawi Hage

Interestingly, the tenacity with which the book/defender combination of Bee/Cockroach made it to the final round had me the most intrigued throughout. That’s the Canada Reads finalist book I’m going to read first, based on both Samantha Bee’s spirited and resourceful defence, as well my friend Paul Whelan’s great review.

Suggestions for next year? On the basis of the invigorating discussions this year, I know I’ll be interested again in 2015, and would love to submit the following ideas for consideration:

  1. Thematic idea #1 How about an examination of indelible characters in Canadian literature that all Canadians should get to know … but not the usual suspects, like Anne of Green Gables or Duddy Kravitz? I’d nominate the likes of Maggie Lloyd from Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel, Desmond Howl from Paul Quarrington’s Whale Music, Sheilagh Fielding from Wayne Johnston’s The Custodian of Paradise or Egg from Tamai Kobayashi’s Prairie Ostrich.

  2. Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies

  3. Thematic idea #2 How about books that will introduce you to the complete works of (perhaps) underappreciated or unknown authors, or authors that have slipped a bit below the CanLit radar? How about selections from the works of Barbara Gowdy, Matt Cohen, Robertson Davies or Judith Merril, for example?

  4. Host/moderator The inaugural Canada Reads in 2002 was moderated by actor/comedian Mary Walsh. For the next five years, Canada Reads was moderated by author and broadcaster Bill Richardson. For the last seven years, Jian Ghomeshi has helmed the program. Is it maybe time to give Jian a well-deserved break and seek a change in the moderator’s chair? (Heck, if he is reluctant to completely disengage, Jian could probably be an able book defender.) While there are already calls for him for Prime Minister, a good interim role for Wab Kinew might be as an incisive and astute moderator who would bring an informed sensibility to the proceedings. His impressive acumen in this year’s Canada Reads proceedings was enhanced by his overall preparedness and knowledge of all of the books, and his ability to respect his opponents without being either hostile or overly ingratiating. I think he could manage a future Canada Reads competition with equanimity and aplomb. Just a thought …

See also:

Post-mortem: Canada Reads 2014, by Allegra Young

6 thoughts on “Canada Reads 2014 – refreshed, inspired, re-energized

  1. Kerry

    I so dislike the Top 40 down to 10 and then 5. It’s all a bit contrived and even if public votes do matter, it means we end up with a roster of books readers know about already rather than books to be discovered. And of course, I hate the expectation that writers must tap-dance for their suppers. I know the public vote i meant to extend the campaign, but it just means that I’m exhausted by Canada Reads before it even happens. My big Canada Reads year was 2009, the year of Fruit and The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant. Imagine a list of books with such surprises! I’d be right back into it again.

    1. Vicki Ziegler

      Kerry, I share your feelings but also feel a bit torn about the top 40 to 10 to 5 finalists format. It has promoted more participation in the whole Canada Reads event, but I’m not convinced the public votes *do* matter that much, and I do agree with you about writers getting involved in ways that they shouldn’t or perhaps don’t want to anyhow … I’d love to see underappreciated, yet to be discovered or “off the radar” books and writers celebrated. Perhaps some of our Canada Reads fatigue of late can be attributed to protracted discussions on books that already been reviewed, discussed, etc. a lot and/or recently.

  2. Marissa

    Loved reading your thoughts on Canada Reads 2014! It certainly was an inspiring debate year. One thought I had for theme for 2015 is very simple: the book to
    make Canadians laugh. We could all use more humour in our lives and Canada seems more associated with the serious thinker books. I am also quite ignorant of canadian comedic writers and I think it would be great to discover some funny fiction and witty non-fiction.

    1. Vicki Ziegler

      Thank you, Marissa. I think there have been some great comedic and satirical works over the years on Canada Reads (aforementioned King Leary, The Best Laid Plans in 2011, Mordecai Richler’s Cocksure and Barney’s Version), but a whole set of finalists devoted to humour might be interesting. On the other hand, would debating about what constitutes humour … take the fun out of it? 🙂

  3. M

    I’d like to see people champion their favourite out of print book. I was disappointed that all the books this year were so new. Did Boyden’s book need the extra publicity? I don’t think so, though sure others will disagree.

    1. Vicki Ziegler

      When Dave Bidini championed Paul Quarrington’s King Leary to the Canada Reads win in 2008, it brought that book back out from out-of-print limbo and back into the spotlight and bestseller lists. I think, though, that Canada Reads wants to ensure that a book is in print before and if it is likely to be in demand once it becomes a finalist and/or wins. I like the suggestion, but I wonder if all potential candidates for a theme like this need a commitment going in from a publisher who will commit to getting the book back in print. (That might be a great way to promote the publishers as well as the books.) I’m not sure the “Canada Reads effect” was significant for The Orenda, which already had a high profile and place on the bestseller lists. What I think the Canada Reads *debates* did, however, was heighten and air the book’s themes in a way that was very positive.


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