Not reading, it's the Canadian way

Well, here's a sockdolager. A new poll says nearly half of Canadians can't name a single Canadian author. I am personally hurt, as my name appears on no fewer than three worst-sellers. I am also astonished. How can anyone in this country not be sufficiently sick of Margaret Atwood to know her name?

I was going to avoid a "New Year's Resolution" column this year, especially about books, partly because it's a point I've made before and partly because I take seriously C.S. Lewis's advice to be gentle about sins to which you are not personally inclined, and my problem is not too little reading but too much (I currently seem to be reading eight books including one by a Canadian). Fortunately, I didn't put that in print yet.

Fortunately I also did not resolve to give up staring slack-jawed in amazement. So I can start 2009 agape, struggling to force out the words "How can you not have heard of Margaret Atwood?" To be sure, I have never read anything she wrote. But I didn't read it on purpose. I thought long and hard about it. And despite rigorous inattention in high school English, I picked up a few other names along the way as well.

For instance, we read As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee. Who was technically British but dreary enough to be Canadian. I also read The Luck of Ginger Coffey and decided the author wished he was Mordecai Richler ... but I didn't, which means I'd heard of Richler too. I'm pretty sure the Ginger Coffey guy was Canadian, though, because the novel is set in Canada which doesn't happen much otherwise. (Although Quantum of Solace has what I believe is the first-ever appearance by a Canadian spy in a Bond film, and while she's clueless and a bit player it's a start. Maybe someone should write a thriller about a super-villain trying to corner the world ice supply as global warming makes it rare and valuable. From a dark feminist perspective, I mean. Iccce... finger...) And we read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies which I liked but not enough to read anything else by him since. High school English was like that.

Still, I recall a few names. I even recall that we read the Odyssey, in a very condensed version, which I thought was good at the time although it turns out it wasn't. And while it isn't Canadian, didn't Margaret Atwood get hired to do a remake from, of all things, a dark feminist perspective?

I'm not saying you have to suffer through all this stuff. But you don't have to go to Mozambique to know it's a country in Africa or some such place. So how can you not be sufficiently au courant to shout "Enough with Margaret Atwood already" given the relentless efforts to convince us that Canada has a great literature and she's it? Or even "Enough with the honorary degrees for Margaret Atwood already." It's like that Bob Newhart joke about how you can generally appear intelligent by working in a reference to Kafka "even if you have never read any of his ... or her works." Surely you can manage to sigh ambiguously "Atwood, ahhhh, yes, words fail me".

It warms my chilly little blue heart to think of all those professional Canadians convinced the public's attitudes toward race, gender, tobacco, diet and exercise depend primarily on state propaganda now staring slack-jawed in amazement that they haven't even managed to make people hate Ms. Atwood. But I stare with them.

If not her, what about Farley Mowat, the guy who not only wrote about wolves but was apparently groomed by them? And I personally spent years feeling guilty that I'd never read Stephen Leacock and then finally I did and he was so funny I talked the Citizen into letting me write a "books you might have missed" review of him. Which you might have missed. But you must have heard something about a Pierre somebody who wrote about trains and stuff.

Of course you never know what people might not know. The headline on the "turn" on p. A2 of the story about that poll in Tuesday's Citizen said "Authors: 1 in 10 don't read books" while the text said "Twelve per cent indicated they spend no time reading books" which is a bit 1-in-8-ish. But who's counting? (Not journalists, as a rule.) However, while math may be hard, you only have to know there's at least one Margaret Atwood to answer that poll question.

So my non-resolution resolution is gone. Instead here's one for the 47 per cent of Canadians, or four in seven, who risk finding themselves like Dave Lister in Red Dwarf, facing imminent death and regretting all his unfulfilled ambitions including "I always wanted to read ... a book."

In 2009 I swear I'm gonna read something by that Robertson Farley Bertonwood they keep talking about. If only to see if it stinks.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]