Canada Reads·In Conversation

Why Ziya Tong sees books as manuals to expand minds and boost critical thinking skills

The television personality and science journalist is defending Max Eisen's memoir By Chance Alone on Canada Reads 2019.
Ziya Tong is defending By Chance Alone by Max Eisen during Canada Reads 2019. (CBC)

Ziya Tong is a life-long reader and for her, books provide the blueprint for living an informed, critical and curious life. The award-winning science journalist and TV host is perhaps best known as the longtime co-anchor of the Discovery Channel's Daily Planet

She's the author of the forthcoming book The Reality Bubble and is a Canada Reads 2019 panellist. She will be defending Max Eisen's memoir By Chance Alone during the debates.

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.

Tong spoke with CBC Books about her love of books.

When did you become a reader?

"As a child my mother would read me stories every night before bed. She was reading me a story one day and I told her she skipped a part. She told me she didn't — she was trying to trick me because it was late. Then she started pointing at the words and I read them back to her. I was four years old at the time. She was in shock because she didn't think I could read yet. But I wasn't just listening to her, I was actually reading along. She now tells everyone that I taught myself how to read!

"She would buy me books and stories from around the world. I was always learning about how different people saw the world. Whether it was stories from Egypt, Turkey, China or England. She brought the world to me through reading."

I couldn't do my job if I wasn't a reader. My profession as a writer and as a science broadcaster would be simply impossible.

What books stand out for you over the years?

"In my early 20s, I read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I loved it. My favourite thing about books is that they offer you a window into different perspectives and this one clearly did that. It's a gorilla talking to a man, specifically about humankind and our role on the planet. I loved it because it's the Socratic method. It's kind of like meeting Yoda, but Yoda is a gorilla who imparts an incredible amount of wisdom about the ways we've structured our modern societies in terms of the 'givers' and 'takers.' 

"Around the same time, I loved this great book by Tom Robbins called Skinny Legs and All. It's fast moving: weirdly quirky, bizarre, slightly surreal. Another perspective is offered in this book because it's a pilgrimage of inanimate objects on their way to Jerusalem. He's able to weave multiple storylines into a hard-hitting finish where he includes Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils. As she dances, each one of those veils reveals something about our reality. I love the way he was able to synthesize all that information in one scene."

How important are books and reading in your line of work?

"We live in a world where there are a lot of blind spots. It's something I talk about in my book The Reality Bubble. But in general, I couldn't do my profession without reading. My profession as a writer, as an author and as a science broadcaster would be simply impossible. It would negate my ability to function.

"I must read for what I do. I love learning. I mostly read nonfiction. I've always loved nonfiction. It's what I do for a living. Books are manuals for living, in a way."

What nonfiction books have you loved recently? 

"One is called A Geography of Time by Robert V. Levine. This is a book by an anthropologist who travels around the world and shows how people around the world see time completely differently. Why is it completely okay to show up late in some countries while other countries expect rigid punctuality? Why is it that in some countries people have a faster pace of walking? All those different things play into a basic dimension that we all inhabit. This is a book that shaped so much of my thinking and writing.

"I enjoyed Growing Pains by Gwynne Dyer. It looks at the robot uprising and connects it with the rise of populism. It looks at the global economic transformations that we've seen in recent times and the red herring that is the blaming of immigrants for everything. We haven't been looking deeply enough into the effects of automation, robots and the effects of AI and algorithms. I found it a profound and deep read — one that is quite urgent and timely.

"Another fantastic book is No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein. She's not only an intellectual powerhouse, she's somebody who deeply cares and you really get a sense of that. She's one of the few people who is able to look into the chaos of the Trump administration and actually disentangle it. This is a synthesis, in some ways, of her previous work. It hits on the 'bait and switch' that she wrote about The Shock Doctrine, the corporate coup that she tackles in No Logo as well as the climate crisis that she deals with in This Changes Everything. It's hard hitting but at the same time it offers you a lot of hope."

I love reading and I think it's hilarious that Canada has a reality TV show that is about promoting books! That is the most earnest, wonderful, powerful thing that this country can do.

Why did you decide to participate in Canada Reads?

"I love reading and I think it's hilarious that Canada has a reality TV show that is about promoting books! That is the most earnest, wonderful, powerful thing that this country can do. It's such an institution.

"Many venerable people have participated in this show and it's an honour to be able to represent Max Eisen's By Chance Alone, which I truly believe is the most powerful book in the competition this year. I've had a chance to read several different books about the Holocaust in the past. Everything from Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning and Hannah Arendt... but this book truly moved me. It's unlike any other book that I've come across on the topic." 

When do you find time to read given your busy schedule?

"I'm always moving from place to place, so it hasn't been easy as a reader. I have a ton of books to get through. I have my physical book library at home and I have a Kindle e-reader which I'm able to put a lot of things on when I'm travelling.

"I have a reading space at home, but I love reading in bed. Give me a book in bed and I'm happy. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to lie down and do nothing after Canada Reads and the launch of The Reality Bubble this year. 

"Maybe I'll read something trashy!" 

Ziya Tong's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

The Canada Reads 2019 contenders