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…

Ontario is home to many great used bookstores. Here are five favourites:

The Pilgrim Reader, Combermere

This oasis in the wilds of Eastern Ontario contains a great selection of books, old and newer, rare and popular. Particularly strong in religion. Instead of investing their money in the stock market, the owners built this store next to their home, and are very glad they did so. Found a couple of early Irving Layton titles here. Contact Press editions.


Book Bazaar, Ottawa

Wide selection spread over two floors includes many interesting, unusual titles; massive music section downstairs; several cases of collectibles and a very strong Canadian fiction section on the main floor. Many more on-line.

Berry and Peterson, Kingston

Very pleasing shop with lots of character, stone walls and a good selection of books both on the ground level (nautical, fiction) and one flight up (literary criticism). Don’t miss The Wayfarer used bookstore either, it’s only a block away, around the corner on Princess Street. I’ve pulled some lovely early Coach House Press books out of there.

Ten Editions, Toronto

As the owner says: “a little bit of most things.” Shelves all around reach up to the high ceilings. Good Canadian fiction and poetry sections in the back. The store, incidentally, was named by the current owner’s mother: an edition for each of her ten children!

Attic Books, London

Generous selection of books – from bargain reading copies, to ‘really old books’ behind glass – should please all but the crankiest. Sections meticulously labelled by category. This downtown shop also carries ephemera, sheet music, postcards, maps, prints and ‘eccentric antiques’. They move books here, so there’s good turn over in stock. Two or three other stores within a block or two, should make for a fruitful stop.

Ontario authors play literary tourist

Literary Tourists are a hard breed to define. Some like to visit places that appear in novels, others to walk along the footpaths that inspired great poems. Some go on pilgrimages to honour their favourite authors. Others seek out the book itself. They go to rare book libraries and antiquarian bookstores, thrilling to the touch of leather bindings, the feel of letterpress-printed paper, the beauty of woodcut illustrations. Still others love good theatre; they search out live stage performances; many like to hunt down famous living authors, listen to them read, and get books signed.

While there are lots of ways to be a literary tourist, all have one thing in common, and that’s alchemy. Each knows how to mix together just the right combination of literature and geography to come up with the perfect travel experience.

I recently asked writers from across the province of Ontario to help me work a little magic. Here’s what happened: Continue reading “Ontario authors play literary tourist”