Sunday, December 12, 2004

Celebrate Books, Break a Record

By Steven Ross Smith

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One in a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance.

Writers and readers across Canada are plotting to wrest a world record away from Americans on April 24th, 2003. Saskatoon's contribution is The Biggest-Book-Signing-in-the-World Fair.

To help break the record and celebrate Canada Book Day here, the Saskatoon Writers Coop is spearheading an event that is part of a nation-wide effort coordinated by The Writers' Trust of Canada, a non-profit organization centered in Toronto. The Trust thinks there are enough authors, books and readers in Canada to create a new record for book signings for the Guinness Book of World Records. The USA boasts the current record – 2074.

Our Fair is part of several designations set in April to celebrate Canada's rich literature. April embraces National Poetry Month, Canada Book Week (April 21-27), and World Book Day (April 23rd).

To set this new world record, at every event on April 23rd and 24th in Canada like the one in Saskatoon, authors will gather to sell and sign their books. The number of books signed will be counted. Then the Trust will do a national tally, and hope we Canadians can exceed 2074.

In Saskatoon, the organizers – a volunteer committee – have a great event planned. I have to watch my use of superlatives, as I'm part of that committee. The committee has put out a call to writers in the community to take part. As of today The Biggest-Book-Signing-in-the-World Fair will host more than twenty-five authors. They'll be signing and selling their books for readers interested in our home-grown literature. You can even bring books you already own, for signing. There will be authors of plays, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, children's literature and more.

Author autographs can increase the value of a book, and make the book extra special for its owner. Or you can have a book personalized as a gift for someone else.

The Fair takes place at the elegant Boffins Club at Innovation Place. It is an oak-panelled room, with excellent food and beverage service. Its gracious atmosphere provides a classy setting for this event, their first literary happening.

Special guest writers Guy Vanderhaeghe, Lois Simmie, Rita Bouvier, Suzanne North and Saskatchewan's Poet Laureate Glen Sorestad will give readings from their own works throughout the evening. Their recent books, respectively are: The Last Crossing, They Shouldn't Make you Promise That (reissue), Blueberry Clouds, Bones to Pick and Leaving Holds Me There.

There was a time in Canada when such celebrations would have marked just a few accomplishments, hardly enough for a fair. But since the sixties, the number of Canadian publishers has grown phenomenally. So too have the number of published and aspiring writers. Canada also has developed a mature infrastructure of literary journals, creative writing programs and retreats, and national and regional awards – including the Saskatchewan Book Awards. Our authors are being recognized internationally. Writers feed the infrastructure and it in turn feeds the writers. We are now awash with fine books and accomplished authors and Saskatchewan has more than its share.

That growth in Saskatchewan literature was discussed in my column about Saskatchewan publishers on March 8th . But to elaborate, we have many books published by Saskatchewan authors every year. We have two major publishers, and new ones rising up. A rough tally based on the shortlists of the Saskatchewan Book Awards last year suggests that Saskatchewan authors are probably publishing twenty or thirty books a year. These include books ranging from Jackpine Press's new series of poetry chapbooks, to Martha Blum's collection of stories Children of Paper, to the Cree and English story for young readers The Bulrush Helps the Pond by Ken Carriere, to Lloyd Ratzlaff's spiritual meditations in The Crow Who Tampered with Time, to Candace Savage's book Wizards. And more books are being published or produced even as I write.

So, we have an indigenous Canadian product to celebrate. But books are not just a product. So what else are we celebrating? Author Candace Savage has has given this some thought. "Even though reading and writing are both solitary activities," she says, "books are really about bringing people together-- whether as writers, readers, booksellers or publishers. An event like The Fair makes these connections real and personal. It allows those of us who love books to share and celebrate pleasures that we usually practice in private."

I don't think that readers would dispute that books give pleasure. But there's more – the matter of pride. Savage continues, "Canadian books and authors make this country proud. Where would we be without people like Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Naomi Klein and Yann Martel to wave the Maple Leaf for us around the world? Where would Saskatchewan be without its Maggie Sigginses and Guy Vanderhaeghes? As a national community, we are entitled to take great pride in the imaginative and intellectual life that we foster and in which we share."

These are lofty yet accurate sentiments. But it is still up to the writer to get out and promote his or her work and help a book sell, one copy at a time. So the writer -- often reticently -- pulls herself away from the writing desk to become the author for public appearances. But to have to be their own book salespersons? This is a tough role for most writers. But many will do so on April 24th. Along with the headliners mentioned above, you'll be able to meet Rod MacIntyre, Jennifer Still, Jerry Haigh, Judy McCrosky, Phil Campagna, Dave Glaze, Leona Theis and many more. They are, I know, looking forward to seeing you at The Fair.

Published writers interested in taking part in the signing and selling might still find table space available. There is no charge for the writers or for the public attending the event. Everything happens between 6:00 and 10:00 p.m.

The organizing committee is Candace Savage, Susan Stewart, James Romanow and myself. We're working with the event coordinator, teacher Aurora Johannson, who is motivated by a love of reading. "Reading has been big in my life from a very early age. As a teacher, I try to show my students how exciting reading can be and how important it is to our success individually and as a society." This is the basis of her enthusiasm for the organizational details. She adds, "Events like The Biggest-Book-Signing-in-the-World Fair showcase the broad array of writing talent that exists in Saskatchewan. We've got many many gems here. Oh, and I get to meet a whole bunch of cool authors!"

As mentioned earlier, the Saskatoon Fair is part of a series of events all across the country on April 23 and 24. Other host cities include Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Toronto, Charlottetown, St. John's, Yellowknife and Moncton. Authors taking part in some of these cities include Leon Rooke, Lynn Coady, Dennis Lee and John Ralston Saul.

Such vitality is wonderful, but is hard won. Candace Savage's successful long career provides perspective. She says, "It seems to me that the lot of writers in Canada is in many ways more precarious than it was thirty years ago. Take-over mania has hit both the publishing and book-selling sectors very hard, with the result that many independent voices have been swallowed up or forced out of business. You only have to look at the scene in Saskatoon to see this process in action. Since I started publishing, in the mid-1970s, we've lost two trade publishers and several bookstores right here in this city. But the miracle is that, despite these losses and pressures, the literary scene here is extraordinarily rich and lively, with people working in a dozen different genres and several languages. The only explanation I can see is that Saskatoon is a city of the book, a place where a good portion of the population takes deep pleasure in the life of the mind and imagination."

If Candace's words speak to you, go out to The Biggest-Book-Signing-in-the-World Fair at Innovation Place on Innovation Boulevard after 6 p.m. on Thursday April 24th. Follow the balloons to Boffins Club. The room will be full of words, books, smiling faces, and the sharing of literary pleasures. Oh yes, and keep the authors' pens busy signing their way to that world record.

Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.

© For permission to reprint this article please contact the SAA outreach@artsalliance.sk.ca

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