Greg Gatenby was controversial when he ran Harbourfront's International Festival of Authors, which he founded in 1980, and he remains controversial a year after leaving the Toronto festival's employ. It is the nature of larger-than-life figures to be controversial. They make passionate friends as they work their magic -- in Mr. Gatenby's case, building Harbourfront's literary festival and reading series and treating authors as stars. And they make passionate enemies as they battle for turf; Mr. Gatenby demanded unreasonably that invited authors turn down later engagements unconnected to Harbourfront.
Greg Gatenby loves books. For more than three decades, he has collected literary first editions and asked authors toinscribe the first printings of their books to him. He now has 28,000 books, most inscribed, that he wants to sell. He said so at a Nov. 24 press conference, and promised to restrict the bidding for two weeks to any Canadian buyers willing to pay $2-million for the lot. That deadline passed Tuesday night. Much as Canadian libraries would love to have this record of the growth of the pre-eminent North American reading festival, they can't afford it.
The controversy attached to the books is the way he received them. He bought most of them himself, but many -- he says 25 per cent -- were promotional copies sent to the festival. The concept of book reviewers keeping copies of books they review is established, but Mr. Gatenby received them in his capacity as overlord of the festival. He says they are his property; the festival declines to comment; possession may be nine-10ths of the law. He does deserve credit for keeping them together.
He says he can't afford to donate all the books as a collection, and there is no reason to doubt him. But the festival was a two-way street. Even as he made it into the success story it is today, he also benefited from it and from the chance to indulge his passion for books and to be first in line for inscriptions from the many authors he invited. It is not unreasonable to hope, and even expect, that while he is free to sell the books he bought however he wishes, he might find a way to donate those books he received through Harbourfront to a library willing to give them a good home, as a collection in his honour and in return for a tax receipt to benefit him now or later.