Canada Reads

How winning Canada Reads helped Steven Page discover a new side of himself

To celebrate 20 years of the great Canadian book debate, the musician reflects on what it was like to win the first ever Canada Reads.
Canadian musician and Barenaked Ladies founding member Steven Page won the very first Canada Reads in 2002. He championed In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

Back in 2002, a radio program dedicated to uplifting and highlighting Canadian literature launched. Coined a "literary Survivor," Canada Reads has artists, celebrities and prominent Canadians debate books in order to determine which title will be crowned the one book the whole country should read.

To celebrate 20 years of Canada Reads, CBC Books is looking back on the show's history to bring you interviews with past panellists and authors. 

We're celebrating the great Canadian book debate's 20th anniversary! Host Ali Hassan looks back at some of the most dramatic and unexpected moments in the show’s history and speaks with past authors and panellists to find out what their Canada Reads experience means to them. 1:37:20

Steven Page, a founding member of the Barenaked Ladies, won the first edition of Canada Reads in 2002. The musician defended In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje.

In the Skin of a Lion is a novel by Michael Ondaatje.

In the Skin of a Lion brings together adventure, romance and history in a story about the immigrants that built Toronto in the 1920s and 1930s. The novel weaves together true stories from Toronto's past with fictional ones to paint a compelling portrait of people who are often forgotten by history books.

Ondaatje was not only the first author to have their book win Canada Reads, but the first Canadian to win the Booker Prize — in 1992, for The English Patient

Steven Page spoke to Ali Hassan about his Canada Reads experience and what it means to him.

What do you remember about getting that Canada Reads call? It had just been invented. What was that call like? What were you told? How was the show described to you? 

It was described to me as a battle of the books. The books would be defended by well-known Canadians. It sounded absolutely terrifying to me. You read a lot of books, and you think, 'I'm a smart guy.' Then when someone calls you on it, that's like, 'Oh. Now I have to pretend to actually remember anything from this book or that I understood it.' All I could think about was being in university and bluffing my way through everything. I thought, 'I don't know, am I up for this?' 

Did the fear continue well into the week of Canada Reads?

The terror continued all the way through it. Even though I chose the book In the Skin of a Lion, which is a book that I loved, connected with and was so meaningful to me and resonant with me. I thought, 'Well, I can talk about this because I've talked with my friends and other people about this book a ton. So that'll be OK.' And then you get there. I kept thinking they're going to pull the mask off me at some point and realize I'm a phony.

But actually in the process of defending the book, much of it has to do with stuff like, 'How do you convince a bunch of other people, who are set on the books that they brought with them?' That's a tough thing to do. It becomes about your debating skills almost as much as it becomes about your literary passion. 

Recommending a book is not that different from making somebody a playlist or mixtape in the old days. You're sharing something of yourself.- Steven Page

How did you choose Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion?

I chose In the Skin of a Lion because I felt like it was the book that had stuck with me the longest of the Canadian books that I had read over the years. First, you go back and think about all the ones you learned in high school. You want to choose something that's common, available and accessible to people, but you also want to choose something that says something about you. Recommending a book is not that different from making somebody a playlist or mixtape in the old days. You're sharing something of yourself. I found the book so emotionally involving and compelling that it felt like a way to say, 'Here's a part of me.' You can't go wrong at that point.

How did the show week go?

It was fun. You're there with these amazing, creative and intelligent, funny, interesting people. I enjoyed listening to their stories about the books that they chose as much as I enjoyed trying to win. I'm not a sporting person. I was never much of a sports team guy. So the idea of being competitive and winning a contest was never really in my DNA. But get in there with some passionate conversation and parts of yourself start to emerge that you didn't even know were there. 

What was that feeling when you did win? 

Shock, a little bit. And very excited. We pretaped this. So when it actually aired, I didn't realize how many people were going to be listening as intently as they were. It was the first year of this. I don't think anybody knew how popular it was going to be. And then because it won, In the Skin of a Lion became a bestseller again in Canada. To be part of helping what I think is a great work of Canadian art, to help that get read and purchased by so many different Canadians — I was really proud of that. Later, Michael Ondaatje thanked me for it. And I didn't know him. I was a fanboy. It was really exciting for me, to have some role in people picking that book up. 

To be part of helping what I think is a great work of Canadian art, to help that get read and purchased by so many different Canadians — I was really proud of that.- Steven Page

I want to highlight that Canada Reads wasn't live until 2011. So you were part of an interesting format that people may not be able to visualize right now. 

We pretaped the show, and then it ran later. So we had no concept that it was going to, in a certain way, change the landscape of people's attitudes toward Canadian literature. Over the years, Canada Reads has become more and more inclusive and interesting and diverse and original in the choices the people make. And that makes it even more exciting. 

You're the first in a long line of musicians who won Canada Reads: John K. Samson of The Weakerthans, Jim Cuddy, Dave Bidini, Shad, yourself. What is it about being a musician that lends itself to excelling in a literary debate? 

Every musician is a collaborator with other musicians. It's a big part of making music, whether you're a solo artist like Shad, or in a band like the rest of us have been. You have to have pretty sharply honed negotiation skills. If you're in a band and you bring them a song that they don't love, find what they do love and make them see the similarity between that song, or that guitar part or that drum beat or whatever else, and the thing that they love. Those skills — I say it with a tongue slightly in cheek — it's how we work. It's always a constant state of negotiation and trying to persuade. 

What has it been like seeing the show grow and evolve over the years? 

I've enjoyed watching. I think there's a broader scope, both of panellists and of books. Some of that is because you've worked through the canon, so to speak, so you start going for stuff that is a little more indie or appeals to a smaller niche of an audience — or so people think — until they bring the book on to Canada Reads. Right. I think that's really exciting, to be able to bring something that may not have had a wide audience, even if that book doesn't win. I think that's pretty exciting. And the fact that the series itself has lasted this long, represents the Canadian appetite for good books. 

The fact that the series itself has lasted this long represents the Canadian appetite for good books.- Steven Page

Canada Reads, as you've seen since 2002, has changed, has evolved, but it's always that same quest: find the one book that all of Canada should read. What did that mean to you in 2002 and what does it mean to you now? 

In 2002, one thing I was self-conscious about is In the Skin of a Lion is Toronto-centric. And I am a Toronto-based musician. I was very conscious of how the rest of the country feels about me and my hometown. And I felt like that was something I had against me, a mark against me that I had to overcome. But the idea of Canadians and how Canadians see themselves — who is a Canadian, what are our Canadian traits and tastes and so on — I think that has changed so significantly in the last 20 years, and largely for the better. I think it's a great opportunity for us to listen to each other in a way that maybe we wouldn't have 20 years ago. 

Do you have any advice for future Canada Reads panellists?

I would say don't close yourself off to the possibilities of other people's books. When you're listening to them and when you're debating with them, do it with respect for their sense of what makes their book great. Open yourself up to the possibility of greatness in that book and stay firm to your ideals that yours is the best. Even if you're persuaded by them. Doesn't matter. Yours is the best.

Steven Page's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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