Ryerson, Canadian Book Publishing, Libido and Plucked Chickens

Literary Tourist in Toronto

Let’s just say $120 a night doesn’t get you much in the way of a hotel room in downtown Toronto these days. Crack-houses – that’s what the customer comments make them sound like. So I dialed up Airbnb to find a place – near Ryerson University – and got a lovely one-bedroom apartment for the same money. Clean, quiet, central, just what I needed. Turns out it was less than a block away from the old Maple Leaf Gardens

where my eldest daughter was scheduled to cross the stage the next day, a graduate of this program. This is why I was here; but naturally I’d lined up a few Biblio File interviews to wile away the spare time.

The first was at the home of award-winning investigative journalist Elaine Dewar. We talked about her book The Handover (Biblioasis, 2017).

It concerns the increasing concentration in and foreign ownership of Canadian book publishing and how this has choked off writers’ options and advances, and readers’ choices. More precisely it explores in detail the convoluted and disingenuous sale by Avi Bennett of McClelland & Stewart to Penguin Random House via the University of Toronto, and how millions in government grants and tax credits were purloined along the way. Reads like a detective story and reveals much about how the Canadian establishment works.

Listen here to our conversation:

After the interview, and a quick perusal of Elaine’s artwork, I jumped in a taxi and headed for Le Paradis

where author David Gilmour and I were to dine that evening. It’s weird. I was in the taxi, and although I didn’t know exactly where I was, at one point the street suddenly seemed familiar. Contact Editions bookshop is located along here somewhere I said to myself. And damned if we didn’t pass it about 10 seconds later (on Davenport). Here, some years past, I’d bought a first edition of the first book ever published by Coach House Press, Man in a Window by Wayne Clifford.

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David is famous among Biblio File listeners for being the only guest ever to have told this podcast’s august host to Fuck Off on air. His blast was delivered after bridling at my nervy criticism of several of his well-turned similes. It happened during one of the early episodes of the program. Listen to the fireworks here if you like

We ate outdoors. The evening was warm and pleasant. Save for water, we didn’t drink anything. The pepper-steaks arrived as the subject of concentrated ownership surfaced again. More and more award-winning authors, I remarked, are resorting, out of necessity it seems, to working with smaller independent publishers, pretty well all of whom have shallow pockets. Despite caring deeply about giving voice to Canadian told stories, the advances they can muster are pretty pathetic. This isn’t to say however that Canadian authors can’t make money with them. It’s just that it’s not as easy and upfront as it once was with the big boys.

Talk turned to literature. I raved about the class of young students I’ve encountered at Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College where sitting in on some Great Books courses (stay tuned for Biblio File interviews with the Profs). They, the students, are filled not only with enthusiasm, but also smart questions and answers. It’s clear they’ve actually done the readings. Close readings. I mentioned how lucky I felt to be able to participate (thanks to Director Mark Russell). Then I remembered that David does me one better. He gets paid to teach this stuff every week at the U of T.

After some discussion of Plato’s contention that it’s a blessing not to be cursed with a ravenous libido in older age, we turned-in early, two Autumn chickens. Plucked alouettes.

Actually, it’s Sophocles who’s credited with the libido remarks in Plato’s Republic via Cephalus, who in turn tells Socrates. When asked about love, and if he was still capable of it, Sophocles replies, ‘Hush! if you please: to my great delight I have escaped from it, and it feel as if I have escaped from a frantic and savage master.’ This has also been translated as ‘like escaping from bondage to a raging madman;’ and my favourite, ‘like being unchained from a lunatic,’also from ‘an idiot,’ ‘a demon.’

To be continued…

Open Air Bookfairs, Gay Archives, National Libraries & Michel Tremblay

Literary Tourist in Montreal

I don’t like identity politics. And I especially don’t like it when it intrudes on literature. I don’t care what colour or gender or sexual orientation or shape or size an author is, so long as his/her/their writing is good. That said, I think everybody should have the opportunity to tell their story, and that there should be plenty of places available for these stories to be told, read, discovered. Finally, while I think that readers and publishers should look all over the place for the best writing they can find, quality – a loaded term I realize – should be at the root of all decisions about what to read or who to publish – more so than content, or who or what the author is or isn’t. If the content or story is about the gay or trans or African-American or ‘dis’abled experience, and it’s well told – namely that it impels me to keep reading and helps me to better understand that experience – I’m good.

With this in mind, I went to the LGBT Open Air Bookfair recently on St. Catherine Street in Montreal. What a happy time it was. I chatted with these folks at

at FIERTE, learned that there’s a gay archive in Montreal

which is home to hundreds of photographs and posters and community newsletters that document the history and struggles of homosexuals in the city, and I saw these books, produced by a gay publishing house

The army was here.

Everyone seemed to be in a grand mood. Some were in really good shape,

others strutted

their stuff.

These guys really got dressed up for the occasion.

But, despite being billed as a ‘book fair,’ there weren’t, to be honest, that many books on display at the event. I wanted to see more. So, after a slow stroll up and down the booth-line boulevard, I decided, since it was only a block or two away, to drop in on the Bibliothèque Nationale du Quebec.

I asked one of the librarians to name me some of Quebec’s best known authors and publishers. Michel Tremblay of course, and Dany Laferrière. I’d heard of them. Nicholas Dickner? No. But his novel Nikolski did ring a bell. It won the 2008 Governor General’s Award for French-to-English translation, and the 2010 edition of Canada Reads. I’d seen the cover before quite often.

,

There was Roland Giguere, the poet/publisher of Erta Books. The librarian also named Boreal, L’homme and Lémeac as some of the better known Quebec book publishers. So plenty of potential Biblio File interview topics and candidates here in Montreal (in fact, I’ve already interviewed Michel Tremblay, so please stay tuned).

Not that I haven’t already done some groundwork. Several years ago I interviewed Simon Dardick about his venerable Montreal-based English language Vehicule Press. You can listen here

and more recently, Ashley Obscura, co-founder of the nascent Metatron Press. She’d just moved into new office space when I met her.

Now that we’re on the topic of Montreal and libraries, I should mention the McGill Rare Books Library where I’ve been spending some pleasant hours recently, reading Robert Reid’s five volume memoir.

Robert Reid Memoir

I always feel good after spending time with Robert, so full of life he is. Still printing in his nineties out in Vancouver. And yes, I interviewed him once too. Listen here

Another draw of the McGill Library is that each week several doors down the folks working on the annual McGill Book Fair, put out several boxes of old books that they figure aren’t good enough to sell. You’d be surprised at what you can pick up here…for free.

Beach, Hemingway and smuggling Joyce’s Ulysses into the U.S.

I met with Krista Halverson, director of the newly founded Shakespeare and Company publishing house, at the famed bookstore in Paris. Listen here to our conversation

We talk, among other things, about the history of Shakespeare and Company, how Sylvia Beach started off, how James Joyce got Ulysses published,  how the United States banned it,  and how Ernest Hemingway figured out a way around this.  Here’s the back-story:

The SS Lansdowne was a railroad car ferry built in 1884 by the Wyandotte Shipyard of the Detroit Dry Dock Company. It crossed the Detroit River from 1884 to 1956, between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario

The first copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses to enter the U.S. came via Windsor, Ontario. The books were printed in Paris and mailed by Hemingway to a friend of his in Windsor who worked for the Curtis Publishing Company in Detroit.

The friend, a reporter named Barney Braverman whom Hemingway had met during his days either in Toronto or Chicago (found references citing both), commuted from Detroit to Windsor each day on the ferry. Braverman reportedly lived on Chatham Street in a house kitty-corner to the back of what is today The Windsor Star newspaper building. Once the smuggling plan was hatched, 40 copies of the novel, published by Sylvia Beach owner of the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, were sent over from Paris.

Every morning Braverman set off with a package under his arm (or somewhere less obvious) containing copies of Joyce’s novel (I’m guessing no more than one or two at a time), strolled downtown  and somehow got past the border guards and onto the ferry. This was the only way to cross the river back then. At the time, construction of the Ambassador Bridge had only just begun.

These were in fact interesting times. Prohibition was in full swing. All sorts of people used to smuggle bottles of fine Canadian whisky across the border tucking them away in their trouser pants and underwear. Booze wasn’t the only thing banned. The authorities were also pretty uptight about ‘immoral’ ‘pornographic’ literature, though this really wasn’t what the guards were on the lookout for.

Each day, for what must have been several weeks on end, this innocent looking publishing salesman crossed the river, went to the Detroit Post Office and fired off first editions of what is now considered by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th Century. Beach’s friends and subscribers throughout the U.S. were on the receiving end, among them Alfred Knopf and Sherwood Anderson (if you’re intrigued by this escapade, check out Michael Januska’s novel Riverside Drive, it includes the smuggling of Ulysses into the States in its storyline).

Image from here.

Today a copy in fine condition fetches $75,000 (twice that if it’s inscribed).  Unfortunately the curious literary tourist can’t take a ferry across the river (only commercial trucks can do this), but he/she can visit John K. King Books on the Detroit side at 901 W. Lafayette Street. It’s humungus. How humungus? Here’s a video I took the last time I was there

Back in Windsor there’s a great shop you can stop off at too, at 1520 Wyandotte Ave. E.  Biblioasis isn’t quite as big, but  it’s filled with a good selection of new (many published by Biblioasis itself) and used books. Here’s one that’s sure to  please the literary tourist.

Audio: Literary Tourist meets Terry Fallis on Parliament Hill



Terry Fallis
would often sit and write speeches in the Library of Parliament for the member of Parliament he worked for during the 1980s. He held the place in reverence, and believes that all Canadians, at one time or another, should visit the place.

We got together outside the Library one sunny summer afternoon to discuss his award-winning political satire The Best Laid Plans, along with his thoughts on democracy. Among other things we touch on the beauty of the Library building itself, how inspiring a visit to The Hill can be, Canada’s current ‘apathy of affluence’ and the fact that while 85% of the populace used to vote in the 60s, that number is now less than 60%. We also talk about the pressing need for Canadians be better informed and to get engaged in their politics, the overly partisan nature of today’s political debate and the laudable goals of avoiding negative portrayals of opponents, working co-operatively on legislation and of focusing on positive visions and programs that put the ‘national’ interest first.

Thinking you might like to check out the Parliamentary Library in Ottawa? For information on tours of Parliament Hill, click here.

Wales meets Peterborough, W.W. E. Ross and Hugh Kenner

If there’s one thing you’ll find in a bookstore it’s connections…like the one made here

in Thea’s Books and Violins in Peterborough. I’m was in town to do a literary audit of the region, and what a delightful segue from my recent trip to Wales the owner provided.

Turns out his father, just like Dylan Thomas’s father, read Shakespeare to him at an early age, instilling in him a life long love of poetry. Bill gave me a copy of “A Book Lover’s Guide, Antiquarian, Rare & Out of Print Books in the Kawarthas…Peterborough, Lakefield, Cavan” and as warm a welcome to the area as anyone could wish for. Reminded me of the time I arrived in Dublin late one night. Cutting through a darkened park on the way to my hotel I encountered an old man lying on the grass. As I walked past him he raised himself up and exclaimed ‘Welcome to Dublin!’ the last thing I’d expected to hear. Set the tone for the entire trip.

Thea’s is a lovely, tight mess of a shop. Just the way I like it. Lots of interesting older titles. I found this one, Shapes & Sounds, Poems of W. W. E. Ross.

Ross was born in Peterborough in 1894 and is credited as Canada’s leading Imagist of the time, taking as his subject matter the Canadian landscape – birds and trees and such – describing them in short lines, with direct diction, movement, clear images. Interesting coincidence that one of the world’s great Ezra Pound scholars, Hugh Kenner, also hailed from Peterborough.