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Julie Wilson, author of "Seen Reading" (Jeff Kelly)
Julie Wilson, author of "Seen Reading" (Jeff Kelly)

Review: Non-fiction/Fiction

Daring acts of literary voyeurism Add to ...

S een Reading might be one of the most whimsical books I’ve read in a long time. It started as a bookish blog of the same name, in which the author, Julie Wilson, witnessed readers on public transit in Toronto and did what we all want to do: She peered over their shoulders and discovered what they were reading. Wilson then wrote short prose vignettes prompted by the triangulated information of page number, reader description and book.

Now, Freehand Books has gathered these pieces, split them into eight loosely defined categories, each section illustrated with a stylized city map, and charmingly packaged them together. Seen Reading is a lovely object, all French-flapped and fancy-papered.

What’s unusual about this book are the many ways you might read it. It’s possible to read it as a catalogue of books you might like to read one day – a list. Alternatively, you might read it as geographically situated prose poetry. You can read it back to front. You can dip in and out at random. You can read it as micro-fiction, augmented by “the real.” Or you can read it as non-fiction, extended by the imaginative, as what some call creative non-fiction.

I read it as an act of voyeurism, in the spirit of its inception. Wilson writes in the prologue: “I am a literary voyeur.” That sentence fascinated me.

We are not given specifics on where each Toronto Transit Commission rider was spotted. In fact, we are not given much of anything specific. We are given imagined fleeting moments in the lives of these readers/riders, some of which, in fewer words than ought to be possible, accumulate to startling emotional breadth. We are given the tangible pressing up to the intangible. We know we saw this male Asian reader, reading this book, and we imagine this narrative for him.

But wait. We have neither seen nor imagined any of these things. What we have seen is Julie Wilson seeing, and so at one remove we are a kind of infinite-regress voyeur. We are reading! And for the voyeur, reading is the ultimate safe act. It’s a neat little trick.

Wilson has created a book about seeing people read that requires readers, it requires the space between the reader and the text, it requires us to look at it, take it in, judge it, to be voyeurs. Taken as such, the best possible conceptual fate for this book would be to only be allowed to be seen reading Seen Reading on a subway or bus somewhere.

And then one would be treated to short shorts like Irlsgay (“When she was ten years old, she sat cross-legged with her best friend inside the midday glow of a blue pup tent and convinced her to play a game, moving the first consonant of a name to its end and tacking on an ‘ay’ to encode a list of all the girls they’d let kiss them on the mouths, if they had to”) and simultaneously be moved by the material and, in the best possible way, yearn for more.

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s books include The Nettle Spinner and Way Up. Her recent short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, The Walrus and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the Sidney Prize.

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