Canada Reads·In Conversation

Why Canada Reads panellist and fashion guru Joe Zee believes reading a good book never goes out of style

The stylist and TV personality will defend Lindsay Wong's memoir The Woo-Woo on Canada Reads 2019.
Joe Zee is defending The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong. (CBC)

Growing up in Toronto, fashion stylist, journalist and producer Joe Zee recalls that a good book was often his most carried accessory. 

Zee is defending the darkly comedic memoir The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong on Canada Reads 2019. The debates take place March 25-28, 2019. 

They will air on CBC Radio One at 11 a.m. (1 p.m. AT/1:30 p.m. NT), on CBC at 4 p.m. (4:30 NT), live streamed online at CBC Books at 11 a.m. ET and will be available on the free CBC Gem streaming service.

Zee spoke with CBC Books about why books mean so much to him.

When did a love of books happen for you?

"I remember being that kid on Saturdays at the library, sitting on the floor reading the book because I couldn't even be bothered to check it out.

"I was reading Judy Blume books, which I think are supposed to be for girls but I loved them. Blubber and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. — I loved all of Blume's classic books, even the controversial ones she wrote later! They all affected me because they were about growing up and having a sense of identity.

"I was the type of kid to be reading The Thorn Birds in the sixth grade. Don't ask!"

What type of books are you drawn to?

"I've always been a pop culture person. I consume content and consume things around me in a pop culture vortex. I'm surrounded by four Canada Reads panellists that are incredibly intellectual — and I'm not saying my choice of pop culture works aren't intellectual — but I feel like that world of popularity has always shaped who I am and shaped the way that I see things on every level.

"I'm not ashamed to love books like Crazy Rich Asians or Memoirs of a Geisha. They are popular books, but they are incredible books! I am not ashamed to say that I love books on the bestseller lists. I love books people want to love."

I've always been a pop culture person. I consume content and consume things around me in a pop culture vortex.

What was the first book that changed your life?

"The first book that I remember touching me in an unexpected way happened in high school. It was J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. It was required reading and I didn't know what to expect. It was an easy read and I always loved that book. There's something about Holden Caulfield, he is a little bit in all of us, in the way we never want to grow up and live in an adult world. 

"The other book I had to read in school was Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. When that was assigned I was like, 'No! Oh no! It's an old book! It's 700 pages! Please no!' I dreaded that assignment! 

"I'm a huge procrastinator. I don't do things over time, but rather on deadline day. I sat down and wanted to get it over with. I started to read and I couldn't put it down. I was so drawn to the characters. The lead character, Phil Carey, had a club foot and just wanted to be loved and was being strung along. That broke my heart, but it made me love the book and the dimension of the characters.

"I saw life in a different way. When you're in high school, everything is dramatic, everything is a problem and the world's coming to an end every day. When I read the book, I felt like there was a slice of another world out there, beyond me, that I wanted to know more about. I wanted to travel the world and see things, other cultures and other people. It spurred my interest in thinking even about wanting to move to New York and wanting to work in a career that would allow me to see those things. In a twisted way, this big thick book I didn't want to read with a lead character with a club foot inspired me to want to look for other things to know and learn about the life that I lived." 

What books were you reading when you moved to America? 

"I moved to New York in the early 1990s, when I was in my 20s. The books I read that have shaped me have been around that era. I met a friend at my school, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and he told me to read this book called She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb. The lead character, Dolores, was sexually assaulted and abused. I never forgot her because at the end of that first half of the book she tries to kill herself by walking into the ocean. Then, at the open of the second half of the book, she awakes in a psychiatric ward. Just even describing right it now hurts and breaks my heart. 

There is a throughline in the stories that have moved me in a deeper way...there were always characters that were slightly flawed.

"But I felt like I was her. I felt like I had to live for her. Then she gets better and goes through life — longing for someone, to be accepted, to be loved. There are so many misfit characters in a crazy world that just wanted to be loved. I feel like those are the people I connect with. 

"That same friend recommended another book  to read called The Salt Point by Paul Russell. It was a coming of age story about  four teenagers in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. It was about sexual identity. At the time, coming out as gay and being gay, there was not a lot of front-facing role models in pop culture. I've read older fiction by gay authors like Larry Kramer, but this was something that felt like it was my generation. These lead characters had these longings for each other, but it was all unrequited love from different people and in different ways. That was such a theme — they are so flawed and yet they're also just wanting to be loved.

"I love both those books so much. I actually wrote letters to Russell and Lamb, which I had never done and have never done since, to let them know how much their books moved me."

Why do books affect us on an emotional level?

"Books allow you to be your own director and make the movie you want to make, out of what you're reading. I'm a very visual person and whatever book I read, I see it as a film in my head. 

"All these books I've mentioned still affect me in a deep rooted way. I've read other books I love, but these are deep in my bones. I think that's why I connected to The Woo-Woo... I realize now as an adult there is a throughline in the stories that have moved me... there were always characters that were slightly flawed."

With your busy schedule, when do you have time to read?

"My life is so hectic sometimes that my sanctuary to read is on an airplane. I devoured The Woo-Woo on a plane. I truly love sitting on the sofa on a rainy day and reading until dinnertime. I wish I could do that more. I know how hard the authors have worked in putting their blood, sweat and tears into that book and how every word matters. I feel like if I don't devote my full attention to a book, I won't do them any justice."

Do you have a favourite bookstore?

"I live in L.A., and I love the independent bookstore Book Soup. I've been going there for 25 plus years. It's where I get everything from new novels to my photography books and cookbooks. There's something about a brand new book that is so beautiful to me. My fantasy has always been to have a floor-to-ceiling wall library with a ladder. We are actually building one as we renovate our house. In some way, my dream is coming true. It only took 50 years!"

Joe Zee's comments have been edited and condensed.


The Canada Reads 2019 contenders

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