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The (Canada Reads) life of Brian: Reflections on the Canada Reads Top 40

For a number of years, I worked in the marketing department of a magazine. One of the magazine's most popular issues (with readers and advertisers alike) was its annual Readers' Poll. The issue featured the public-chosen winners in a variety of categories, ranging from Best Politician to Best Chinese Food to Best Place to Pick Up a Lesbian.

The concept for the Readers' Poll issue was simple — and hugely successful. Businesses could boast their wins as a way of luring new customers and readers had their opinions validated. There seemed to be a sense of satisfaction from the collective effort of consumers as they helped to support and promote local businesses and individuals.

But there was one crucial problem.

Predictability.

As the years went by, the same winning names appeared on the Readers' Poll list time and time again. In a large number of categories, the winners were chains and corporations with the biggest advertising budgets and market penetration. As the novelty of the Readers' Poll issue began to wear off, the voting process became lazier and lazier. I'd flip through the Readers' Poll issue, wondering, Do people really think that highly of Pizza Pizza?

Eventually, things had to be revamped. The editors and writers were asked to select their picks for the best in the city. And while there some resistance to the idea (some writers thought that, by stating their picks, they'd be perceived to be undermining public opinion), there was also a significant contingent of the readership that wanted the authoritative perspective that only the writers and critics could give.

These readers knew there were unknown destinations, hidden gems on sidestreets, mom-and-pop shops and unsung heroes waiting to be discovered. And while most of these places didn't have the big advertising budgets or visibility of others, they were thriving on the most desirable, effective and genuine form of advertising: word of mouth.

In the end, the magazine created both a readers' poll and a critics' poll in the same issue. Two parallel lines of opinions, one based on popularity and the other based on insider knowledge.

When the call for the Canada Reads Top 40 first went out, I wondered how dynamic the list would be in the hands of the general public. What if it mostly consisted of the books we'd already read and celebrated? What about those critics' picks, those sidestreet discoveries? I thought maybe the Canada Reads team should have surveyed the country's top literary critics for their picks instead.

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But when the Top 40 list was revealed last Thursday, any doubts that I had disappeared. Yes, there are some predictable titles on the list. (And when I say "predictable," I don't mean that in a negative way. These books are on this list because they're unquestionably some of the most essential reads of the past decade.)

But there are also so many surprises. Graphic novels, small-press titles, first-time authors and seasoned professionals. These books range from teen angst to tortoises; from Mennonite misfits to historical sculptors.

Full confession time: I've read only six of the 40 titles. At first I felt ashamed of that, but the thrill of discovery soon overpowered. I've got 34 new books to read.

This list, your list, is a celebration of great Canadian fiction. It's remarkable to think of the great catalogue our writers have produced in the past decade. And equally remarkable to see how passionately readers feel about these books.

I know some of you aren't entirely happy. There's always going to be a title or two (or three or four) that someone feels should've been included. But no list will ever be definitive. The importance of these lists is that they get us thinking. And talking. And discovering.

 

Brian FrancisBrian Francis is Canada Reads' resident blogger. His debut novel, Fruit, was the runner-up in the Canada Reads 2009 debates. His second novel, The Natural Order, will be published next year.

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