Archive for November, 2009

Get into reading — and get a better life

November 13, 2009 1 comment

I’m at the TD National Reading Summit, an effort by publishing types, librarians and others involved in the written word to figure out new ways of promoting the joys and benefits of reading.

It’s billed as the first of three meetings with the ambitious goal of rolling out a Canada Reading Plan that would tackle the twin challenges of getting people to read more, and equipping them to make sense of what they read.

The keynote speaker, Brazilian author Ana Maria Machado, summed it up this way:

Reading is more than literacy. In print does not mean it is true. Reading well means being able to turn knowledge into wisdom, to be able to tell what is accurate, and to understand how to check things that aren’t.

Her comments sum up the scope of the issue, something of which the organizers are well aware. A closing session identified the obstacles, as well as the goals, of a national reading plan that would be funded by both governments and the private sector.

The goals: Books (and magazines) available everywhere and at anytime. Literacy beyond the basic level. All ages and cultures included. Increased support for writers and publishers.

The obstacles: A complex issue, little clarity or understanding of the problem. A long term horizon. Little public awareness of the social benefits of reading. No organization in place to plead the cause.

SummitI’m at the Summit representing Periodical Marketers of Canada, the association of magazine and book distributors, and a co-sponsor of the event.

It’s my contention that the best way to promote reading is by promoting individual reading “products.” That means more advertising and PR by publishers of their books and magazines to stimulate more reading.

A book publisher at my table said she couldn’t afford to do any more advertising. And that’s the big problem facing Canadian publishers and authors. Books are dying on the shelves — and magazines are being returned to the wholesalers — because the public just isn’t being told about the great reading that’s out there for them.

The Reading Summit marks a serious attempt to face up to the issue of under-use of our reading skills — and its consequences for Canada in poor productivity (workers who can’t understand manuals) and low levels of social involvement (more voters staying away from the polls).

Other countries are taking steps to raise reading levels. We heard examples from the Netherlands, Mexico, China, among others. If we don’t do the same, we’ll end up lagging behind such countries.

As well as promoting individual titles, they’re promoting reading as a satisfying and rewarding experience. We saw a great Spanish language TV spot depicting a boy orating romantically as he read aloud from a book. Cut to an audience of little girls swooning at his performance. Cut back to the boy now with a smug, self-satisfied smile. A fun spot that might actually influence boys — the hardest audience to reach — to get into reading — and get a better life.

But I left the Summit with a harsh message ringing in my ears. Patsy Aldana, publisher of Groundwood Books, told the story of an Ontario school board that bans the reading of books for pleasure during the school day. Get caught with such a book, and if you can’t explain its purpose, it’s taken away from you. An isolated case, I’m sure, but a reminder that maybe we need to start from the inside and make sure people charged with educating our kids share a love for reading. A fitting goal for the National Reading Summit.


The Giller: Awarding literature, or journalism?

November 11, 2009 Leave a comment

The surprise win by Linden MacIntyre of the Giller Prize, at $50,000 the richest award in Canadian books, has been something of a stunner in the literary community.

His book, The Bishop’s Man, tells the story of a priestly fixer, Father Duncan MacAskill, who has been serving his church in the capacity of trouble-shooter, covering up the sexual aberrations of other Roman Catholic priests in the Cape Breton district of Nova Scotia.

I’ve not yet read The Bishop’s Man. It sits on my coffee table, along with the four other Giller short list nominations. I’m looking forward to getting into it. I’ll be making it my next read.

Bishops ManAnyone watching the Bravo TV cast of the Giller Awards Tuesday night must have been as surprised as those in the room that the judges chose it as this year’s winner.

After all, McIntyre is a broadcast journalist, host of the fifth estate on CBC-TV, and while he has written one previous novel, he’s not been regarded as an icon of Canadian literature.

Was the jury carried off by the topicality of McIntyre’s subject, some might have wondered. Did journalism triumph over literature?

Ironically, the page devoted to McIntyre’s win in the Globe and Mail this morning provided space for a second story: Catholic priest released on bail one day after sentencing for sexual abuse.

How do these things happen?

My take, allowing that I’ve yet to read The Bishop’s Man, is that it’s a powerful narrative of the human forces at work in the corruptive and oppressive environment in which many good priests try their best to serve their flocks.

I’ll be interested in learning how McIntyre addresses the fundamental problem — the dogma of celibacy.

It is here that the problem lies, of course.

McIntyre and others may rightfully point to the failure of leadership in the Catholic Church that has seen abusive priests shifted from parish to parish, ostensibly to protect its own good reputation as well as the careers of its erring priests.

But to my mind, celibacy is an affront to the genetic reality of human beings. Practised as it is within the Catholic church, it becomes a perverted and pervasive lure that forces some priests to find alternative forms of sexual satisfaction. The problem will never go away.

I heard Linden MacIntyre this evening in a delightful interview with his wife Carol Off on CBC Radio’s As It Happens.

He allowed that he felt like a grate crasher at the Giller, and magnanimously wished that all five short listed authors could have shared the prize. He hadn’t expected to win, he said, short of recognizing that he had a “mathematical possibility” of coming out on top.

Then Carol let the cat out of the bag. Linden lost the $50,000 check handed him by Jack Rabinovitch! Happily, she recovered it this morning, crumpled into a tiny ball in an inside pocket of his suit.

Congratulations, Linden. You’ve demonstrated that journalism and literature can share the same coin.

Smitherman’s dubious mayoral credentials

November 9, 2009 Leave a comment

No loyalty, no sense of duty. That’s the image George Smitherman, Ontario’s Deputy Minister and Minister of Energy, projects as he sets out to become Mayor of Toronto.

At a time when the McGuinty government faces all the problems of a crumbling manufacturing sector and a deep recessionary budget, it has been very much in need of Smitherman’s continued service as one of the strongest of Ontario cabinet ministers.

Instead, he’s thrown this over in favor of stepping down to the municipal level in a bid to head up a civic administration that is, technically and constitutionally, “a creature of the provincial government.”

The text of his announcement is here.

The folks who write on Toronto politics are going to have a field day with this one.

Besides abandoning the provincial scene at a difficult time, Smitherman will take with him into his mayoralty campaign some heavy baggage from his days in Cabinet.

The billion dollar eHealth scandal began under his watch as Health Minister, although it didn’t come to light until his successor, David Caplan, was in that job. Problems over untendered contracts cost Caplan his job, but it’s said that many in the government feel Smitherman unfairly dodged the responsibility which properly belonged to him.

Then there’s the controversies over various alternative energy schemes Smitherman has been pushing in his role as overseer of Ontario’s new Green Energy Act.

Are these the credentials needed by a future Mayor?

The scuttlebutt around Queen’s Park is that Smitherman’s announcement of his mayoralty intentions was handled none too well. Rumors leaked out at the weekend resulting in media confirmations before most highly-placed Liberals were aware of the Monday announcement.

McGuinty’s chair of cabinet and long-time supporter, Gerry Phillips, has been called on to pick up the Energy portfolio. He’s held that job before, and is unlikely to want to stay long in a second run at it.

The upshot is that Smitherman’s move puts McGunity in an awkward position and leaves him vulnerable to charges of piloting a rudderless ship.

Smitherman’s reputation as an attack dog promises that next year’s mayoralty campaign will be a lively one. He’s no doubt counting on the short memories of voters by the time the campaign gets rolling.

With John Tory, the former provincial Conservative leader likely to come into the race the stage is set for a two-party fight in what has traditionally been a nonpartisan arena.

That raises another question. Is it really in the public interest that the job of Mayor of Toronto become a prize top be fought over by the three provincial political parties?

Either Smitherman or Tory would be a more effective mayor than the NDP-leaning David Miller, who won’t be running again.

But Tory’s record of straight-out, honest politicking — even though he’s had more defeats than he deserves — may earn him a lot of support when put up against Smitherman’s seemingly self-centered approach to public life.

Stand by for “a helluva ride.”

NY Times’ Best Sellers – real or doctored?

November 5, 2009 Leave a comment

I’m at the storied Arts & Letters Club in Toronto for a discussion on what drives book sales. Is it best seller lists, or good reviews?

But the most controversial issue to come out of the discussion — for me, at least — is the assertion by Noah Genner, president and CEO of BookNet Canada, that even the New York Times’ vaunted Best Seller lists are often “editorialized.” This means, he said, that they omit books whose sales would qualify them to be on the list, based on their editorial judgments of what really belongs there.

Here’s part of the current Times Best Seller list, as posted on the Times’ web site:

Hardcover Fiction

Top 5 at a Glance
1. THE LOST SYMBOL, by Dan Brown
2. THE SCARPETTA FACTOR, by Patricia Cornwell
3. PURSUIT OF HONOR, by Vince Flynn
4. NINE DRAGONS, by Michael Connelly
5. THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett

Hardcover Nonfiction

Top 5 at a Glance
1. HAVE A LITTLE FAITH, by Mitch Albom
2. SUPERFREAKONOMICS, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
3. WHAT THE DOG SAW, by Malcolm Gladwell
4. TOO BIG TO FAIL, by Andrew Ross Sorkin
5. ARGUING WITH IDIOTS, written and edited by Glenn Beck, Kevin Balfe and others.

Fool me, here I thought Best Seller Lists were based on actual sales reports from booksellers.

Maybe this is why another panelist, the redoubtable Toronto bookseller Ben McNally, called the lists “idiocies” that are either “worthless” or “useless.”

The lone book reviewer on the panel, Geoff Pevere of the Toronto Star, conceded that lists are becoming “news in their own right.” He said people want information in such short bursts that lists of things are becoming replacements for stories about those same subjects.

Trevor Dayton of the big bookseller Chapters/Indigo, said he thought Best Seller Lists contributed to the “cultural conversation” by offering people something to talk about “around the office water cooler.”

And he made no apology for their front of store displays of these titles. “What else would we do?”

The discussion, sponsored by the Canadian Book and Periodical Council as part of its Idea Exchange series, was meant to settle the question of what most drives book sales.

But it was left to Kim McArthur, president of publisher McArthur & Company, to pin it down as to the most powerful sales tool for books.

It’s personal appearances by authors, she said.

If you want to sell books, go on author tours.

Her view was reinforced by Trevor Dayton. He said they get a spike in sales whenever an author appears on radio or TV, especially the CBC or, in Toronto, on the popular CITY-TV outlet.

Genner also slammed the Maclean’s magazine lists. BookNet, the industry tracker of book sales in Canada, takes in data from 11,000 retailers and uses these numbers to compile its own best Seller list. But one-quarter of the market (especially Walmart) is still not participating.

And another thing: Throughout all this discussion of books, best sellers, and awards, Margaret Atwood’s name was never mentioned!

Please go home, Prince Charles

November 3, 2009 Leave a comment

Having been brought up to be polite, I’m addressing Prince Charles with this plea: “Please, go home.”

The current visit by the Prince and his woman, titled the Duchess of Cornwall, is being treated pretty much Ho Hum by most of the public and the press. It’s hard to compete with swine flu.

Of course, being a Royal visit, it does bring out the usual infantile blathering that inevitably accompanies such occasions.

This time it’s Rose DiManno, in the Toronto Star, making much of the fact that the PM upstaged the Royal guest by “plagiarizing” part of a speech Charles gave on a visit 15 years ago. It was some nonsense about how every time the Prince visits Canada, a little more of the country seeps into his bloodstream, and from there, “straight to my heart.” What baloney.No self-respecting speechwriter would ever commit such tripe to paper.

The upshot of all this, according to DiManno, is that “The Royal We were not amused … scooped on his own best line by the Prime Minister of Canada.”

All this happened on Charles’ first stop-over in Newfoundland. The fact that the country’s biggest newspaper could find nothing more to say about the visit than to make a fuss about who upstaged whom, is pretty solid evidence of how remote the monarchy has become from Canadian life.

Royal%20LineFor most Canadians, the House of Windsor is nothing more than a historic curiosity.

The fates of the Royals — and the powers behind the thrones that pull the strings — always make interesting reading.

A book that traces Britain’s Royal lines back more than 2000 years should  satisfy anyone who wishes to get beyond high school British history. It’s Royal Line of Succession by Hugo Vickers, and covers every regime from the Kings of Wessex in the 6th century to the present day. Lots of coats of arms, and family trees.

While it’s true there’ll always be a core of Canadians who like the Royals — witness the fact that Hello magazine flies off the newsstands when a Royal is on the cover instead of a Hollywood celebrity — support for the Monarchy is steadily declining in Canada.

According to a new poll, 39 per cent of Canadians think we should sever all ties. But only 31 per cent want Charles as king, compared to 41 per cent who would rather see the throne pass directly to his son, Prince William.

So maybe our disenchantment with royalty is a personality thing, caused by our distaste for Charles ? I hope not, because really, he’s not all that bad a guy. Has some enlightened views on modern architecture (hates it) and he worries about climate change.

But what Charles Windsor thinks is irrelevant to the real world. If the Royals had gone into useful occupations — like medicine, engineering or even architecture, they might be more highly regarded. But none of them have ever done a useful day’s work in their lives — unless lending their prestige to charitable causes counts as “work.”

Australia has done a better job of facing up to this than Canada, even though their vote on abolishing the monarchy went astray over disagreement as to what should replace it.

Some day, Canadians are likely to be asked to throw aside their apathy and render an opinion on our future. I suggest a simple question:

Should Canada drop the Monarchy and become a Republic. Yes or No?

If that passed, we could then get on with devising a replacement — like an elected President within a parliamentary system whereby the Prime Minister would still be the head of government.

Does it all matter? Probably not very much. And Canadian politicians, being adverse as they are to taking a stand on any issue, will drag their feet as long as possible.

But at least it might get our minds off swine flu.