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Brian Francis reflects on the noise of Canada Reads

It's been a scant two years since my book was on the Canada Reads list and I already feel like I'm a generation away from this year's debates.

[In cranky elderly man's voice] "In my day, the public wasn't involved. Your book got picked and you got a call letting you know. The books were talked about on the radio and people could post their opinions about the panelists and the books on a website. But that was it. There was no live blogging. No live streaming. No talk of Kobo sales rankings. And I don't even know what all this Twitter business is all about."

Canada Reads 2011

What a difference a couple of years can make, even in a world as traditional as the book one — a world I don't think is typically known for its cutting-edge approach. In celebration of its 10th anniversary, Canada Reads upped its own ante in 2011, introducing an unprecedented number of platforms through which readers, hopeful authors and the public at large could discuss, argue, lambaste and cheer all things literary.

I think this has been the noisiest Canada Reads ever.

The noise began in the fall with the initial call to find the Top 40 essential books of the past 10 years. What did "essential" mean, some people asked? And wasn't that subjective? Then came some criticism of the authors trying to drum up public support for their own books via their websites, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube videos. One Canada Reads commenter compared it to the Hunger Games. Was the final Top 10 going to be composed of Canada's essential books or of the authors who had the largest social networks?

When the Top 10 was revealed, there was more noise about the way panelists were selecting their titles to defend. How passionate would panelists feel about a book if they were restricted to selecting from a pre-determined list? If Canada Reads was going to stay true to its roots, if it was going to have the authenticity that readers had come to expect, how could this process possibly work?

When the final five Canada Reads titles were revealed, I sensed a bit of relief. Here was a list that excited people. There were new genres (Essex County), new authors (Ami McKay, Terry Fallis and Angie Abdou) and recognition of one of the country's most established writers (Carol Shields). Canada Reads 2011, it seemed, was shaping up to be a great year.

Then the debates started and Essex County was the first book eliminated. The noise picked up again as fans of the book and the genre took to Twitter and to the Canada Reads website to express their frustration, disappointment and anger. On the second day of debates, Debbie Travis admitted she hadn't finished one of the books and the noise continued to grow. Travis had an obligation as a panelist. It was a matter of respect. And just how book savvy were these any of these panelists, when all was said and done? They weren't looking for the best book. They were looking for the most accessible. They were championing literacy, not great writing.

As some of you may know, I was live blogging with CBC's Hannah Classen during the debates. On the final day, there were more than 3,000 people online. We could barely keep up with the comments that kept scrolling by from all across the world, including Australia, Germany, Spain, Finland, The Netherlands and Ireland. There were comments from people wishing their own country had a program like Canada Reads. There were Essex County fans, The Bone Cage fans and Unless fans. There were people cheering for The Best Laid Plans and The Birth House. And there were people who simply seemed happy to be a part of the moment and to connect with other readers.

Then, of course, came the final vote, crowning The Best Laid Plans as this year's champion and bringing the Canada Reads shows to a close for another year. The noise came to its inevitable crescendo. The people online logged off. The studio emptied. The panelists went back to their regular gigs.

As I left the CBC studio, my mind still buzzed with the words and voices I'd read and listened to over the past four months. The complaints. The compliments. The enthusiasm. The frustration. It struck me then that I couldn't recall the last time I'd heard that much noise about books. And it made me proud to be a writer. And a reader. To have been part of the noise of an industry that is sometimes overlooked. Underappreciated. Quiet.

Brian Francis

Brian Francis is the Canada Reads 2011 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 in fall 2011.

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