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Books Review: New books from Lynn Coady, Margaret Mackey and Carl Peters

One Child Reading: My Auto-Bibliography

By Margaret Mackey, University of Alberta Press, 584 pages, $60

One Child Reading, in which a professor becomes a geographer of her own literacy, is hyper-local, yet there's something about the way Margaret Mackey describes the forces that affected her early reading as a white, middle-class girl in 1950s and 60s St. John's that will speak to readers across identity lines. Mackey is a professor of library and information studies at the University of Alberta, where she studies the literacy of young people. One Child Reading originates from the limitations of more orthodox research methods: A subject can tell researchers only so much before relying on generalizations and falling back into the murk (novelist Wayne Johnston's term) of pre-memory. Such a self-referential study comes with its own challenges (of which Mackey is aware), but this book marks an expert in her field bringing a career's worth of knowledge to material she knows best. A thorough and lucid examination of the self, aided by prolific illustrations and great page design.

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Who Needs Books? Reading in the Digital Age

By Lynn Coady, University of Alberta Press, 72 pages, $10.95

In December, 2014, Trei Brundrett tweeted, "I love how we talk about the internet like it isn't us." The sentiment of that tweet, quoted in Who Needs Books?, lies at the heart of Giller-winner Lynn Coady's 2015 Kreisel Lecture for the University of Alberta's Canadian Literature Centre. In Who Needs Books? Coady queries literary culture's favourite current bugaboo: digital culture, latest opiate of the masses. Remember that much-decorated Coady also writes in that previous medium to have melted our brains: television. Here she asks how it can be that exalted literature survives despite being so thoroughly threatened by every technological advance – indeed, by the printing press itself. And what do people like Jonathan Franzen and Will Self mean when they talk about "serious" books anyway? Coady is no utopian fantasist: The digital is only as good or bad as what it is, which is us. A much-needed corrective to some of literary culture's most cherished assumptions.

Studies in Description: Reading Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons

By Carl Peters, Talonbooks, 408 pages, $24.95

You don't read Gertrude Stein's 1914 prose poem Tender Buttons casually – or you could try, but grow frustrated: The eye trips along the lines faster than the mind makes sense, and that's on purpose. Tender Buttons isn't nonsense, though it's been called that by readers who haven't the patience for its syntactic difficulty; Stein means to be difficult because she finds meaning there. Pause. Slow down. Look at the sentence the way you read a Picasso. How do you make sense of Picasso? That's how you read Gertrude Stein. I crib these remarks from Carl Peters's introduction to Studies in Description, his intense, personal study of meaning-finding in Stein's work, though on reading Stein I speak from experience. Studies runs two texts in parallel: On the left page, Tender Buttons (the definitive, City Lights edition); on the right, Peters's annotations. If you haven't read the main text before, I recommend doing that first. But remember: Go slow.

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