Looking for great Canadian titles to add to your summer reading list? Or maybe you have a few gems you’re dying to share with others? The literature-loving minds behind 49thshelf.com have just launched an interactive feature to connect readers across the country and support talented Canadian authors. Called the 100-Mile Book Diet, it features a Read Local interactive map of Canada highlighting fiction and non-fiction reads (even cookbooks!) according to where in Canada they’re based or where the author comes from.
Chatelaine talked with The 49th Shelf’s Julie Wilson about the importance of Canadian literature and what makes this literary diet so compelling.
Q: Where did the idea for the 100-Mile Book Diet come from?
A: The idea behind the site is to make it easier for people to find the next great Canadian read. It was organic: 49th Shelf contains the largest collection of Canadian books ever assembled (over 50,000!), and it struck us that among these are a vast quantity of books related to place — either about a place, in the case of non-fiction, or set in a place, in the case of fiction. We realized the potential for building the biggest map of Canadian books ever.
Rather than pin all the books to the map ourselves, we’ve sent out an early call to readers; a challenge to look at their own bookshelves and contribute their most beloved titles to our map. Not unlike the songs that situate us in place, we hold the same spot for our favourite books. The challenge is to create a visual space in which readers can immediately recognize the awesome potential for this map to populate itself exponentially over a very short span of time.
Every book pinned to the Read Local map operates a bit like a patch on a quilt. Every piece is unique and comes with its own story — readers are encouraged to tell us why they’re adding the book to a particular place on the map — and it’s only after those pieces start to come together that we’ll all be able to stand back and marvel at the texture and diversity of Canada’s authors, publishers and readers. By putting our books literally “on a map,” we can provide yet another means of coming to know our country and of celebrating who we are.
Q: What is it about reading books that take place in familiar settings that separate them from books set in foreign places?
A: Possibly it’s a more layered reading — you have your own experience of a place, and then you have the author’s interpretation. Whether the latter jibes with your own experience or not, you’re going to end up with a richer sense of the place in question.
Then there’s the power of a great author: think of how many times an author has written about something — say it’s a feeling or a thought that a character has — and you think, “Yes! Exactly! I couldn’t have said it better!” And that description stays with you and means something to you — it’s triggered a greater understanding of the world within you. That’s how it can work with place, as well — especially familiar places.
There’s also the connection to our land and the reality that, for many of us who may have family and friends scattered across the country, we’ll visit more of Canada than foreign places. Certainly, there’s a lot to hold our interest. It’s a truly diverse and beautiful landscape. To visit the Read Local map is to take a trip you’ve possibly yet to consider. Just as local books situate us in familiar places, they hold the power to give us permission to take a holiday without leaving the country.
Q: Why did you choose to launch the project in the summer?
A: This is a great season for books. We know readers are looking forward to weekends outdoors, in their backyard or in beach chairs. Even if the hope of getting away is just a fantasy, there’s something about summer reading, it feels like readers are open to surprises, doesn’t it? When I think back to some of the authors I’ve been introduced to while at someone’s cottage, it all came from scanning a stranger’s shelf and asking if I could borrow a book. It just seemed to make sense that we would launch a map in a season when readers are looking for new adventures and something to throw into their bag or onto their e-reader.
Q: You’ve included themes called Summer Specials; tell us something about them.
A: It’s pretty exciting in Canada when summer comes around and we get access to the gorgeous fresh local produce (think tomatoes and corn) that we don’t see when everything’s frozen: hence, Eat Your Way Across Canada was picked as one theme. Readers will be able to keep adding to the map through the year, since eating in Canada is good whatever the season, thanks to the great regional cookbooks out there and the fantastic restaurants dotting the country. The Great Outdoors is another seasonal inspiration: the sun started shining and we started thinking hiking, fishing, weekend cottage trips, canoeing, etc.
Q: Are these books all new releases? Or can readers submit older picks as well?
A: New, old—all are welcome. As long as they’re place-based, they have a home on the map. Again, they can be set in a place, in the case of fiction, or about a place, in the case of non-fiction. For example, Lisa Moore’s February is set in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Before I’d read Moore’s novel, my sense of its place was situated in the jacket copy: 1982 in the aftermath of the Ocean Ranger oil rig disaster. But after I’d read the book, I associated a very different kind of place with its story, one that situated my toes in the cold Atlantic where the narrative itself ebbs and flows like a tide. This is a common experience for a lot of readers. And it should be said that a book that was written 5, 10, 20 or 30 years ago is only as young or old as the last person who read it. There’s also an opportunity for readers to connect over shared interests that span beyond the book. That is why books are often referred to as social objects – they’re the water cooler for the reading community. Books are where larger conversations begin.
Q: Why do you think it’s important that we read local literature?
A: It’s sort of existential: places cannot help but define us, and books about places we live in and love play a role in that. We become more connected to Canada—and the amazing and different locales, landscapes, and people within it—when we “read” them. And that stretches our imagination of Canada, too: it’s entirely possible to fall in love with a place in Canada we’ve only read about. It’s a bit magical how place-based books can reflect our country back to us.
The Read Local map focuses on the importance of reading local, yes, but, more so on the importance of sharing those local experiences in a way that inspires broader acts of reading, which is the truest celebration we can think of when it comes to showcasing Canada’s great books and authors.