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Detail of illustration prepared for the print version of this story (Neal Cresswell For The Globe and Mail)
Detail of illustration prepared for the print version of this story (Neal Cresswell For The Globe and Mail)

summer essay series

Shelf awareness: Finding Canada in a forgotten corner of a Paris bookstore Add to ...

Expat Craig Taylor longs for the Canadiana he discovered at his now shuttered hometown bookstore in Nanaimo, B.C. In this first instalment of an exclusive Globe summer essay series, he finds what he’s looking for in an unexpected place: Paris

Recently, I’ve been looking for an excuse to read as many Canadian books as I can in an irresponsible, unacademic, indiscriminate and promiscuous manner. As one of the late greats, David Rakoff, put it, we are all frauds, but my literary fraudulence has often led me to pretend I know more than I do, and speak about books I’ve never read, or might have read, or should have read or somehow come to know without reading. (I feel I’ve read Stuart McLean. It doesn’t always feel good.)

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I wanted to gorge on Canadian books and bring together unlikely partners. Morley Callaghan’s That Summer in Paris, as it turns out, shares DNA with Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? “What kind of guy was I?” asks Morley at one point, wringing his hands back in 1963. Heti has her Toronto friends; Morley worries about an even trickier acquaintance named Ernest.

I wasn’t just going to grab at books: I wanted to conduct this project by reading through a truly memorable bookshelf. I’ve been mourning the loss of the Canadiana shelf in a bookstore in my hometown of Nanaimo, B.C. Even though I live far away, I would return to Bygone Books on Commercial Street often because it retained a flavour I began to realize was unique. By my early 30s, I had seen Powell’s in Portland and Strand in Manhattan and Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, and the bookshops on Charing Cross Road and even visited a book barn in upstate New York with walls made from stacked paperbacks. I was awed, obviously, but aware, too, that for all they offered, Bygone Books in Nanaimo outdid them in one small way. It had a bookshelf so completely different, full of books so Canadian that, from them, in their often bizarre juxtaposition, a portrait of a Canada arose in front of me that was both ambitious and shaky, as befitting such a country. There were old books that argued Canada was set to rule the 20th century; newer ones maintaining it was a second Yugoslavia ready to erupt. There were optimistic Mountie memoirs but also well-thumbed copies of Joy Kagawa’s Obasan, to remind B.C. kids of other, uncourageous deeds. Dotted throughout were books that might never appear on Charing Cross: Boss Whistle, the great mining oral history of my town; a dictionary of ripe Western Canadian slang; a hardcover I bought entitled, simply, This Is Saskatchewan.

It was a shelf of books, let’s not exaggerate. But it was also an unsanctioned composite portrait of Canada that arose from amid the thicket of Bertons. When you live abroad for years it’s easy to be seduced by the corporate representations of Canada. For me, in London, this includes the Canada Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square, where a large oil and gas company acts as a sponsor and the imagery unsurprisingly consists of photos of untouched wilderness. It is a sadly uncomplicated Canada.

Not so with bookshelves, the only palatable representations of Canada’s complex national spirit, because a bookshelf is specially made to house units of warring representation, and on shelves such as that in Bygone, these fragments sat next to each other with covers emblazoned with images that Molson’s wouldn’t dare stick in a montage: Louis Riel’s knitted eyebrows and old black-and-white photos of René Lévesque blowing plumes of smoke. There were books that reaffirmed what a strikingly weird group of people we are, knotty and complex. In this way, stuffed with books, the shelf became an antidote to a simple phrase like “I am Canadian,” especially when those particular words now bring up little more than a sense memory of watery beer. I loved standing in front of that bookshelf.

Who wins and what lasts? Bygone Books closed last year and I lugged some of these books, including This Is Saskatchewan, home for safekeeping, and luckily some of the others went down the street to another bookstore, but this is rare. When other Canadian bookstores close, the books don’t disappear. They’re warehoused and available somewhere online. Some phoenix into e-books. What disappears is their public presence. You could, I suppose, search for any title online, but you couldn’t arrange them into that messy portrait I used to run my eyes across at Bygone.

Which is to say, I’d been looking for a shelf. One day not so long ago, in Paris, I wandered into the Abbey Bookshop, located in the Latin Quarter and run for the past 24 years by a former Torontonian named Brian Spence. The shop is so packed with books it’s difficult to know where to set down the cup of coffee Spence inevitably offers. On the first day I went in, I noticed the tall bookshelves were set on rollers. I slowly pushed aside the shelf holding Library of America copies of Twain, and like a final-act scenery reveal, another shelf appeared beneath. It was a marvel. It was just what I needed: old copies of the New Canadian Library, M&S budget editions of Farley Mowat, a Neil Bissoondath and a Gabrielle Roy, and Dany Laferrière and a few books, including a critical study of Hugh MacLennan, that had rested undisturbed for so long the price on the inside cover was written in francs. I stood back to consider the shelf and thought – with a creased copy of Anita Rau Badami already in hand – this might be a good place to start.

Next week: Pierre Berton, short fiction and an apology to Mavis Gallant

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