RIP Book Room

The closure of the Book Room, Canada's oldest bookstore, was announced several months ago, and now it seems it's happened. Of course it's sad to see it go; it was quite a nice bookshop, and in its way a bit of local history.

But (!): in fairness, I have always vastly preferred The Bookmark and John W. Doull as independent bookstores. I'd be beside myself at the loss of either of those (much as I was at the closure of Sam's). I'm hoping that these businesses are more flexible and adaptable than the Book Room, which blamed its closure on the rise of internet book-shopping, proved to be. But, just in case, if you're in Halifax, I beseech -- nay, implore! -- you to shop at these stores. What kind of city would we have without independent booksellers? I shudder to think.


"The Emperor's New Clothes": Three Musings

1. It's the child, the child with no position to protect, the child with the least authority of anybody in the story, who announces the emperor's nakedness.

This tells us: the risk in telling the truth is least when you have the least. We accept and propagate deception to keep what we have.

(Here, I have everything: a full fridge; a heated house; clothing; the necessities of life.

Here, I have everything: a fridge full of food grown by people in total poverty; house heated with oil won in foreign wars; clothing sewn by ten-year-old girls; necessities of life bought cheap, at somebody else's expense, to leave some money for luxury. What am I going to do about that?)

Also: The utterance of the weak has power. And not simply because this is a story for children.

2. The emperor, he's at fault. He's foolish and he's vain, and these are real flaws.

But the emperor gets his comeuppance. He's humiliated; he's spent piles of money on lavish robes that don't exist -- while conmen-tailors skip town happily, with their pockets full.

This tells us: you may think that you know who you please when you keep your mouth shut. You're probably not looking in the right place.

Or, our flaws leave us vulnerable to real, active evil. That's not inexcusable, perhaps; it's certainly human. But you need to keep your eyes open, and your mind sharp.

3. The emperor was naked all along. And everybody saw it.

This tells us: If it's true, it's true; you see it, even if you don't say it. So say it.

Ask, at least. Is the emperor naked?

I've been thinking about this story a lot lately. Health care in America? The emperor's naked. War in Iraq? The emperor's naked. Public education? The emperor's naked. And on, and on, and on.

Plantation sugar?

Every time I go home, I'm startled to see these sugar packets:

Now, there's nothing wrong with the sugar itself. (It's raw sugar, basically indistinguishable from the "Sugar in the Raw" sold in the USA.) But why on earth is there a picture of an ambiguously dark-skinned person playing a mandolin under the label "plantation"? Perhaps the Lantic Sugar company doesn't find this image offensive, but given the long practice of bad white people using African slaves in Carribbean sugar plantations, I have to object. It goes without saying that there's a complex, ugly history there. This stylized image, which suggests that this sugar is natural, exotic -- raw, of course! -- translates that ugly history, and all of those offensive essentialized concepts about people of African descent, into mere marketing.

I've dumped dozens of these packets into my coffee over the years, but after putting it into those terms I think I might be switching to Splenda.

This is also a reminder about the importance of ensuring decent treatment for current farmers and farm workers -- be they growing sugar beets, sugar cane, cocoa, coffee, or any other commodity crop. I'm not as rigorous as I should be about choosing fair trade products when possible, and I'm not sure that fair trade arrangements are the best of possible solutions -- but it's better than the alternative of certain exploitation.


Revise, Revise, Revise; Also, What's the text?

I set the Beatles' Anthology, Volume 3, as my alarm-clock music for this morning. Hypnopompic listening is, I think, just about the best kind: in that haze between sleeping and waking, I hear things with a particular clarity.

This morning, I had two thoughts. First, having these anthology recordings -- which show some portion of the group's creative process -- is deeply reassuring for those of us who don't spit out beautiful, polished work on a first draft. (That might be everybody. Isn't it?) Setting aside even the difference in production values between these "sketches" and the finished works, the tiny details of lyrics or harmony that were changed from early version to final version remind me, at least, that even the very best of us have to polish, polish, polish. Sometimes I'm a bit sidetracked by that Romantic ideal of flurried, inspired creation, even in academic writing; for me, this is a very good reminder.

Another hypnopompic musing: listening to one of these sketches, I thought, "it's too bad that they didn't record that version!". Clearly, this thought was the product of a still-drowsy mind, as I was in fact listening to a recording of that version. But -- in the ongoing debate about what constitutes a text in popular music studies, I think that this instinctive reaction is worth examining. Both of these recordings exist, but one (even when I'm really awake) still seems more 'real' to me than the other. Abbey Road is an album; the Anthology recordings, even though they might contain versions of these songs that have the same bare musical materials, are something less. I'll draw no conclusions -- because I don't think this debate really is a resolvable one -- but I'll keep this filed as evidence.


The CBC, or, highbrow/lowbrow

I spoke to my father this evening, and we came to the topic of the CBC. Apparently, in his opinion, the CBC has hit a 'new low' this year with programming such as MVP (which has in fact already been cancelled), and The Week the Women Went (which has apparently been very popular, and will return for another run). My father's solution? The CBC should run "more of the good BBC shows".

Now -- I'm a total sucker for BBC programming. I'm not sure what percentage of my Netflix rentals over the last two years have been BBC shows, but it's a substantial number. I've gone through the new Doctor Who, As Time Goes By, Fawlty Towers -- and, actually, after that, the list starts (ahem) to get embarrassing. But, as I said to my father, "We're not a colony any more!". Given the near-saturation of Canadian channels with American (and, to a lesser extent, British) programming, my nationalist inclination is, perhaps problematically, this: if we're producing television about Canadians, and Canadians are watching it, that's a good thing. Genres that people watch -- yes, even soap operas and 'reality' television -- do have a place on the programming roster of a government-funded national broadcaster.

This is a problematic perspective, yes. The more I dig into the issue of nationalism, the more I'm inclined to see it as something toxic -- and, in fact, to think that Canada works reasonably well as a country specifically because it lacks the coherent, mythic identity of so many more powerful, and historically more dangerous, nations. At the same time, I have to dig in my heels when I see my national culture being subsumed -- or aborted? -- by Anglo-American imports. Even if its content is lowbrow, even if it's the product of a Canadian government institution, I instinctively regard Canadian cultural products as evidence of postcolonial resistance, be it to the colonial power of the past (Britain) or the pseudocolonial power of the present (the US). Perhaps I've spent too much time immersed in the work of Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, et. al. -- the generation of writers who came of age in the late 1960s -- but there still seems to me to be some inherent value in this enterprise.

There is, however, an inherent paradox in this argument, because at least with regard to television, what this comes down to is a debate about the model in which the CBC, as a public broadcaster, should be cast. Should it be highbrow, 'educational', something that strives to provide a clear alternative to the lowest-common-denominator programming of private broadcasters? Or, as an institution funded by taxpayers, should it be concerned with offering programming that appeals to as broad a range of Canadians as possible? The paradox: the former model is that of PBS; the latter, that of the BBC. So though I might defend a broader-based approach to programming by the CBC, including Canadian content of all stripes, what I'm really defending is the model of the BBC.

I'm not sure what the alternative is. Is there a third possibility, a new model for the CBC? Is our best option to simply follow the BBC model, with an emphasis on Canadian content (as was done literally with MVP, which turned Footballer's Wives into the wives of hockey players)? What I'd love would be a reinvigorated CBC, with all the shining glory of its best programming -- The Newsroom, Twitch City, This Hour has Seven Days, even the old Degrassi. What was so glorious about all of that old programming? Thinking, offhand, of these examples, I'd have to say that they were deeply Canadian without being intentionally Canadian. The express national identity, with little explicit nationalism. They didn't hide their Canadian attitudes, Canadian settings -- but they weren't terribly emphatic about them, either. They set aside most of the anxiety about national status, accepted that they were immersed in Canadian culture in a global age, and went about their business. Perhaps instead its persistent identity crises, the CBC could try learning from its past successes, and take these up as models.