Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Welcome to the World’s Biggest Book Club

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World Book Club

One night not so long ago in Toronto, a professional book nerd met a handsome man and after the man asked the book nerd what she did for a living (“I’m a professional book nerd,” she said), he said, “You’ll be totally disappointed. I read really bad books.” At least, that’s what he thought he said. What the book nerd actually heard was, “I’m a reader too. Let’s talk about books now.” And they did.

A few weeks later, the new doorstop by mega-selling author Dan Brown landed on the book nerd’s doorstep (okay, okay, the book nerd is me so I’ll stop with the third person now). I read it. I reviewed it. I surprised myself a little bit and some friends and colleagues a lot by saying many nice things about it. “Dan Brown of the tautologies and ham-fisted sentences and dun dun daaaaaaaaaaaah! cliff-hangers?” you ask? Yep, that’s the one. High literature it isn’t, but entertainment is what it sets out to be and entertainment it is. Many reviewers drew much the same conclusion as me. Not that it matters to Dan Brown of course. His novel was review proof and shifted ten times as many copies as its closest competitor in its first week on sale.

In certain media outlets in a country that for the sake of argument we’ll call “England,” some of the “serious” papers tackled the conundrum of what to do with a book that’s not literary but that they still had to review by making fun of it. In smart, snarky and often hilarious ways, it’s true, but make fun they did. And yet the book sold a jillion copies (fact, look it up). There was even an early-morning scrum at Union Station to be among the first to get one. If we make fun of Dan Brown/Twilight/grown-ups who read The Hunger Games, that’s a lot of enthusiastic readers being snickered at. They would be entitled to find the snickerers to be total jerks.

Ahead of World Book Night earlier this year, author Matt Haig wrote a brilliant and much circulated piece on what to say to a book snob. Item number one on the list was this: “People should never be made to feel bad about what they are reading. People who feel bad about reading will stop reading.”

On June 4, Malorie Blackman, author of the YA novels in the Nought & Crosses series (and many more) was appointed the UK’s new children’s laureate*, and addressed book snobbery as one of her first items of business. Referencing comments by the UK’s Education Secretary, Michael Gove, that he would prefer his daughter to read Middlemarch than Twilight, Blackman said, “I don’t agree with Michael Gove. The point is that [children] are reading. My strategy is to say to a child ‘if you love vampire stories then have you thought about Frankenstein?’ … You mustn’t be prescriptive because it closes down a lot of reading.” She went on to recount an incident from her own childhood in which a teacher ridiculed her for reading a comic — the kind of incident that could have lasting effects on a child’s interest in picking up any reading matter for pleasure at all.

As I sat reading my still-warm copy of Dan Brown’s Inferno on the streetcar, far from feeling sheepish about brandishing a piece of mass-market reading material, I rather liked the feeling of being part of a club (a club of many millions, but I was always picked last for sports teams at school so my baseline for belonging is pretty low). A report commissioned by the National Reading Campaign (for whom, full disclosure, I do some freelance communications) found that reading as a communal activity is much more likely to encourage participation than reading as a solitary pursuit. I read (and liked!) Dan Brown, I read (and didn’t like!) Fifty Shades of Grey, I’ve been to a lot of Blue Jays games this summer too. I like being on a bandwagon — there’s good company to be found there.

It’s easy to make fun of things that are popular. But where will that leave us if we’re telling so many book buyers/readers/word-of-mouth spreaders that they’re doing it wrong? I might think a book is terrible for many different reasons, but that’s not the same thing as thinking a person is terrible (or, worse, dumb) for reading it. Point 12 on Matt Haig’s Book Snob list was this: “You are one of 7,000,000,000 people in the world. You can never be above all of them. But you can be happy to belong.” Being a reader means that you read, not that you read more or better than somebody else. Reading’s a giant inclusive club, and we should all be in it together.

* Yes, Britain has a children’s laureate. More on that — from a Canadian angle — another day, I hope.

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Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, and a freelance publicist for many of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s literary award and fundraising programs. One or two days a week Becky works as a bookseller at Toronto indie Type. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

You can find past columns by Becky Toyne in the Open Book Archives.

1 comment

Anything that's popular is considered to be crap by the literati. A hundred and fifty years ago they'd be turning their blue noses up at Dickens because he was so wildly popular. They wouldn't be caught undead in the same room as a Stephen King novel, even though IMO King can write circles around most of his contemporaries, including the award winners. And anyway, there's nothing wrong with a little light fun. I have a very bright friend who's into celebrity gossip and has read bios of people we could care less about, but she's also got a shelf full of classic literature *and she's read them all*. Personally? Do not diss my Harry Potter, and I won't shock and horrify you by explaining in exquisitely painful detail why Tolstoy is terribly overrated.

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