There have been plenty of Canadian TV shows in which contestants are showcased live on air, critiqued, and then voted off until a winner remains. Canadian Idol, So You Think You Can Dance Canada, and Canada’s Got Talent immediately come to mind.
But, in only one of these shows are the contestants defending novels.
CBC’s Canada Reads launched in 2001, and is an annual battle of the books in which five celebrities from varying backgrounds champion a book they believe Canadians should read. They promote, defend, and dispute the finer points of their selections in a series of live broadcast debates.The books are voted off one at a time until a winner is declared.
Disclaimer: prior to writing this, all I knew about Canada Reads was that my father gave me the winning novel for Christmas three years ago—Nikolski, by Nicolas Dickner—which I ended up enjoying immensely. So, when I received an email offering free tickets to see the broadcast live, I decided to go. I wanted to see how CBC transforms a literary debate into engaging and audience-oriented arts journalism.
I arrived at the CBC on February 12 at 8:45 a.m., about an hour before the filming began. Being on time pays off. By 9:15 there was a line extending through the hallway. Foolishly, I forget to bring a book to read while I wait to be ushered into the studio. Luckily, a kind and chatty group of five female retirees who have come to watch the show are more than happy to give me a brief rundown of the books being featured, the spokespersons, and the format of the show. They are avid fans who have attended every taping since 2008.
The contestants are divided by geographical location (this has allowed CBC to attach the snazzy title “Turf Wars” to this edition of the competition.) They are:
Olympic wrestler Carol Huynh, defending Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese.
Ron MacLean from CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada, defending The Age of Hope, by David Bergen.
Non-fiction author and historian Charlotte Gray, defending Away, by Jane Urquhart.
Actor, writer, and producer Jay Baruchel, defending Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan.
Comedian Trent McClellan, defending February, by Lisa Moore.
At 10 a.m. we are ushered into a cramped elevator, then seated in a studio. Every seat is taken, and some latecomers are forced to stand. I am seated beside the five women I stood in line with.
The broadcast is organized into rounds of debate, during which host Jian Ghomeshi poses questions and plays the role of mediator. The five contestants must defend their books and explain why the competing ones are inferior.
The level of discussion and the amount of thought the contestants put into their argument is impressive. The debating is lively and has the audience cheering and laughing. Ron MacLean, when not playing straight man to Don Cherry, is hilarious; a definite crowd favourite. My impression of Jay Baruchel is based on his goofy performances in Knocked Up and Goon, so I am surprised when he offers some of the debate’s most insightful analysis.
At the end of the second round one more book must be voted off. To the dismay of Vicky and her four pals (we were on a first-name basis by this point), Jane Urquhart’s Away is voted off.
“I’m very sad, because I think that Away is a book which takes us into a realm of the unconscious that most books don’t touch, the sense of dislocation, the sense of looking for somewhere to belong,” says Gray. “And it’s also a book that could only be a novel, the private act of the reader and the story connecting at your own pace rather than at the pace driven by the electronic world.”
Vicky has other thoughts on the matter, chalking up the loss to the fact that most of those on the panel are too young to appreciate Urquhart’s writing style. As we are about to leave, she turns to me and asks if I have read Away—I have not.
Should have known,” she says.
February, by Lisa Moore was later selected as the winner of Canada Reads 2013.