This summer, expat Craig Taylor rediscovered his homeland through the Canadiana collection of the Abbey Bookshop in Paris’s Latin Quarter. This is his final column.
It’s the last day of August. My summer of non-stop Canadian reading is coming to an end. An unruly stack of books teeters against the wall. My findings – which I’m sure will be published by a university, or at least a community college – are as follows: I believe Wayne Johnston should have won the Booker for The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. I believe fans of W.G. Sebald should track down Frederick Philip Grove’s Over Prairie Trails; I think The Collected Works of Billy the Kid should be put in a capsule and shot into space with a Post-It attached saying Look What We Can Do. Also: Gail Anderson Dargatz? Lynn Coady? Read them.
I enjoyed books on subjects I care little for: Curtis Gillespie is astute on golf; Kevin Chong just as good in My Year of the Racehorse. I found Joey Smallwood’s memoirs compelling; Diefenbaker’s? Not so much. I found that reading Robert Bringhurst’s A Story As Sharp As A Knife will forever change your views on narrative; that Nox by Anne Carson will break your heart, as will Life is About Losing Everything by Lynn Crosbie.
There are deeper effects when you engage with the literature of your country. You’ve suddenly got ammunition when called upon defend your nation’s arts.
Not long ago I read a review written by Ross McKibbin of a book about Rupert Murdoch. In it, McKibbin used a phrase that stuck with me: “the foreclosure of ideas.” Who could possibly be trying to foreclose ideas in this country? Is there really a ruling party that refuses to engage in discussions about the future of Canadian culture?
It’s a given that Canadians are great defenders of freedom of speech. If a paper or website were threatened, we’d react. But how do we protect against this slower erosion – call it tactical apathy? As an expat, you want to yell back to the homeland: You think all this great art, this stuff that defines us globally, that shapes our views, just spontaneously exists regardless of political climate? Think again.
Foreclosure is not as immediate as censorship; it simply means excluding knowledge and discussion from the public sphere. The change happens slowly – less arts funding, less engagement, the discussion narrows by degrees, attitudes harden, there’s less connection. Empathy towards others doesn’t disappear entirely. It just drains away, one millilitre at a time.
Reading Canadian books is push against the foreclosure of ideas. It’s much harder to fear immigrants, for instance, if you’ve lived with the thoughts of Rawi Hage’s narrator in his novel Cockroach. If you read Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen, you may understand the origins of the Idle No More movement.
My stack of books also made me think of the future of literary culture in Canada. If Amazon wins and we inherit a landscape scorched clear of bookstores, well, some say it’s because Amazon is better, smarter, because it’s what we really want. We give them our money, after all.
There’s a group of people who don’t believe this, but most are too reliant on a purely emotional response. I’m as guilty as the rest. I remember meeting a young Canadian in the U.K., eager to get into politics. He said to me: “Maybe Canadian bookstores should die out,” with a shrug. My best comeback – sotto voce – was “Oh yeah, maybe you should die out.” But what good is muttering against economic arguments? We’ve all got to get better at defining the benefits of these places, better at stressing that we can’t coast on what CanLit has been.
I started this essay series with a description of a bookstore and I’d like to end it with two more. The Bookstore on Bastion Street was my local in Nanaimo, B.C. It offered space, couches, a curated stock. The owners supported local writers and hosted traveling writers passing through town. This focal point allowed young readers space and time to make the journey from Robert Munsch to Paddle to the Sea, to Bruno and Boots to Eric Wilson to wherever they chose to go next.
Canada’s literary scene isn’t inherited. It’s built and rebuilt. It relies on these places. If Canadian bookstores aren’t viable here, then where? As I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve been reading as many books as I can from another store – the Abbey Bookshop in Paris. Its owner, Brian Spence, is from Toronto and opened his shop in 1989. It was the first Canadian bookstore in Europe.
Brian and I had some good conversations in Paris. These days, he says, more and more foreign customers come in and say they don’t have bookstores like his anywhere near them. More and more visitors come in just to see and smell what “a real bookstore” is like. “Hold up a copy,” I heard one tourist say while I was there. She pointed the camera at her friend. “Now make it look like you’re reading.”
Over the years, Brian has seen the decimation of Canadian government support for overseas promotion of Canadian work. At the same time, he has witnessed more government support for publishing in France and increased effort to protect actual booksellers. What makes one group of people fight for their bookstores while another group just watches them disappear from their cities and towns? “It’s strange,” Brian said last time I was in the shop, taking away a stack of paperbacks for this column. “It’s easier to run a Canadian bookstore in Paris than it is in Canada.”
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