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Past panelist Jen Sookfong Lee on recommending books she loves not wisely but too well

When I first met my husband almost 13 years ago, he cunningly appealed to my ego and asked me to compile a list of books that I thought he should read, leaving out the fact that he was and remains an intelligent and hungry bookworm who didn't need my literary advice at all (I told you he was cunning).

However, the instinct to press reading lists on people has never really left me and, given the opportunity, I will gladly rattle off dozens of titles to anyone who wants to listen. Never ask me for book club suggestions unless you're prepared to listen to me blather on for hours at a time!

When I was a panelist on Canada Reads 2009, I didn't think that any other experience could satisfy my book-recommending ego any better. After all, I was tasked with coming up with a title that I thought the whole country should read. It doesn't get any bigger, or more pressure-filled, than that! Last month, however, the good people at CBC Vancouver asked me to participate in a Canada Reads-themed special. The catch? I had to come up with five books that explain Canada to non-Canadians, a primer of sorts for all the Olympic tourists who have descended upon the West Coast and are looking for the quintessential Canadian experience. So, instead of recommending one book to all of Canada, I was asked to pick five books to recommend to the entire world. Even my robust literary ego quaked at the thought.

I've always thought of Canada as a polyphony — a hodgepodge of communities that can sometimes seem disconnected but are in fact not. To outsiders, we may seem like a random assortment of individuals, but really we form an intricate network of groups that are integrally connected through origin, language, place, loves and hates. But how to choose five books that exemplify that? I may as well try to define what a Canadian is, or merge the two solitudes into one. I spent hours muttering to myself and staring at my shelves, alternately choosing and rejecting books, some multiple times. My dog watched me warily, as if she was half-expecting my head to burst into flames.

But then, I had an epiphany. Canada isn't a country that one just explains to people. Words fall short when we try to communicate the vastness of our geography, or our complicated and often underappreciated history. Canada is a country that you let wash over you, not a country that you puzzle over, nitpicking at every word ever written about free trade, the RCMP or maple syrup. While in the midst of my fuzzy, book-filled quandary, I realized I was simply over-thinking. It was time to free myself from trying to be smart or political or socially aware. Instead, I picked books I love, whose individual voices are as singular as every Canadian I have ever met, and whose contributions to the literary landscape are not necessarily determined by a list of qualifications but by how deeply they touch me, or how much emotional truth pours out of their pages. Because, like Canada itself, books can't always be understood by brain power alone. Sometimes we have to approach them with our whole selves and experience the visceral, blood-pumping, joy-inducing journey for what it is, not for what it means.

And so I travelled, list in hand, to Studio One at CBC Vancouver on the evening of February 17, weaving through the Olympic throngs on my way. When my co-hosts — CBC's Sheryl MacKay and Canada Reads 2010 panelist Simi Sara — turned the mics over to the studio audience, almost all of them came ready to advocate for their favourite Canadian books and displayed a level of emotional connection with their picks that surprised me.

We talked about love and poetry, family and landscape, myth and history — all those things that make great Canadian writing resonate with people at home but also with people who live in other places. What struck me was that everybody there, from the audience to Sheryl and Simi, went with books that speak to us as human beings, not necessarily the ones that make the most intellectual sense. Because we could talk all day about Canadian identity and what books explain it in reasonable, logical ways, but that leaves out the most compelling thing about any book, which is how it moves us, and makes us cry or laugh or see the world (and ourselves) in a totally new light.

So what books did I choose? I can't tell you right now because the special doesn't air until March 6 on CBC Radio One in British Columbia and everyone has to listen to it. However, I will say that I chose a well-loved fiction classic, an epic stage play and a collection by one of our finest and underappreciated poets. And trust me, every single book bleeds with real human emotion and reveals a little something about how being Canadian is idiosyncratic, ever-changing and a wild, heart-wrenching ride.

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