A Post-Holiday Progress Report

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I’m still not back into the post-holiday swing of things, are you? So, instead of a full post, here’s a report card of sorts – what I’m reading, what’s on my radar, where I’m aiming to be.

Book Report

I don’t have the manual dexterity to qualify as a gamer, by any stretch of the imagination. But, I do find the narrative potential of the form fascinating and gaming has also become a frontier for discussions around activism, social justice, feminism, race, and more. The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture by Daniel Goldberg & Linus Larsson is a good place to start if you’re interested in where progressive game culture is headed.

The next book in the pile on my nightstand is Creating a Learning Society by Joseph E. Stiglitz & Bruce C. Greenwald. In a time when learning is becoming a more and more closely guarded resource, the implications of a “learning society” for a healthy economy are intriguing.

Then, I’m on to Amy Halloran’s The New Bread Basket, exploring the rise of local grain production.

There’s also one book I finished recently that’s lingering in my mind. Sally Mann’s Hold Still is a compelling exploration of an artist’s appraisal of her work and history. It’s also a book that reminds me that misgivings about an artist’s views on some subjects shouldn’t preclude admiring their take on others. Mann’s striking honesty and openness is what stays with me, along with her sharp insights into art, photography, and memory.

Lunch Hour

I like to test-drive cookbooks by taking them out of the library. I tell myself that it keeps me from buying more and taxing my groaning bookshelves. In truth, if I like what I see, the book mysteriously appears on the shelves sooner or later. Oh, well.

Here’s what I’m currently taking out for a spin:

Oodles of Noodles by Louise Pickford could be my mother’s dream cookbook. Whenever we go out for lunch, she’s angling to try another restaurant that serves one variety of noodles or another. This book does a sort of survey of East Asian cuisines.

I’m getting a head start on next year’s holiday cookie lineup with Mindy Segal’s Cookie Love. Though, who am I kidding? Cookies are welcome every day of the year.

Modern Jewish Cooking by Leah Koenig has a world focus, rather than being grounded in one tradition. So far, I’m finding her Breads and Pastries section particularly tempting.

Social Studies

Did you find yourself wishing that Tina and Amy had taken the Golden Globes’ stage one more time? I did. Here’s one of the reasons why: Ricky Gervais‘ jokes about trans people.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the great essayists of our time, able to take on even the trickiest of subject matter.

Extreme weather is already becoming a factor in our lives and will affect how and what we eat in the future. Researchers are studying the impacts in order to adapt.

Jeff Wall’s body of work is celebrated world-wide. Even so, he harbours doubts about the direction of his artistic career.

Recess

If you think the holidays are the biggest reason to max out on sugar, you’re wrong. It’s nearly Hot Chocolate Festival time.

Or, if you have a more grown up palate, you could check out the Vancouver Whisky Festival.

I’ll probably spend some time at the Gluten Free Expo next weekend – when half the household has celiac disease, it’s a yearly must.

If you want to feed your mind instead of focusing on your stomach, the PuSh Festival starts next week. If you’re of a more urbanist bent, MOV‘s Your Future Home exhibit is starting soon.

That should give you enough to chew on until my next full-fledged post. Enjoy the rest of the week, even if it’s not incipiently spring-like where you are.

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The Spring Hermit’s Bookshelf

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So many of my friends across the continent are dealing with a harsh winter, while I’m contemplating planting the first seeds in the garden. I almost wouldn’t mind being snowed in, though – it’s been a long time since I’ve had a snow day and there’s nothing like cooking, baking, reading, and dreaming from a cozy vantage point on an icy world.

Except for doing all that, while also being able to go on long, sunny walks in the fresh spring air. I should just enjoy it before the rains start again, shouldn’t I?

And really, who needs an excuse to hunker down with a good book?

I just finished Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime and it was every bit as good as I expected it to be. I love writers who can take seemingly disconnected subject matter and weave the threads together into a greater whole. Chandra’s book explores code, but also colonialism, Indian and Western literatures, writing, and more.

I also have a bookshelf standoff happening between Alice Medrich’s Flavor Flours and Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Baking Bible. Actually, the only conflict they’re creating is whether or not I can justify adding two more beautiful books to the groaning shelves of our cookbook bookcase.

Here are some other excellent recent reads:

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner – deceptively small, for such a rich and comprehensive survey of a subject, rather like a magical object in a fairy tale.

How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City by Joan DeJean – for those who dream of architecture and cultural formation, along with the romance of Paris.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – a post-apocalyptic vision that sees more than just dissolution.

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum – a bracing book of essays.

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age by Cory Doctorow – copyright from a socially just perspective.

And coming up:

Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923 by RF Foster

Moving Targets: Writing With Intent, 1982-2004 by Margaret Atwood

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

After that, I think I should get back outside. So, tell me, what are you reading?

Holiday Book Reviews – 300 Best Homemade Candy Recipes

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I don’t know about you, but this is the week when my Christmas shopping always begins in earnest. So, for the second year in a row, I’m bringing you three book reviews to help you cross a few names off your list.

I received a review copy of 300 Best Homemade Candy Recipes from Robert Rose Inc. Nevertheless, all opinions in the following post are my own.

My mother’s aunts were tiny women with very strong arms. That’s because they were raised in an era without stand mixers or food processors to help them in the kitchen. One of the things they used their strength to make, in quantities great enough for the whole extended family, was the French Canadian specialty sucre à la crème. This simple fudge was something we looked forward to at Christmastime and my great-aunt Leona taught me how to make it when I was a teenager. Until very recently, sucre à la crème and truffles were the only candy recipes in my repertoire.

Enter Jane Sharrock’s 300 Best Homemade Candy Recipes. I’ve been curious about candy making for some time now, so when I got the opportunity to review this book, I jumped at it. Sharrock’s cookbook covers most of the categories of candy you can find in a kitchen and some, like lollipops, that I never dreamed you could make at home.

Sharrock began collecting candy recipes when her mother gave her a treasured pressure cooker that was perfect for making candy, along with a small booklet of candy recipes. Sharrock went on to try to preserve the candy recipes from earlier generations, which lends her cookbook an air of nostalgia. Reading through the recipes, I get the sense that these candies populated the tables at church bazaars and community potlucks, in the days before mass-produced sweets took their place.

This means that for the most part, the recipes use ingredients that you’d easily find at the supermarket. The few specialty items, like candy coating, can be found at baking supply stores. But, just because these recipes are old fashioned, doesn’t mean that they’re all unsophisticated. The pralines, divinity, and nougats would make a sweets table shine and even recipes that were thought of as homey, like taffy, seem very impressive these days. You won’t learn skills like tempering chocolate or making marshmallows from scratch, but once you’ve mastered this book, taking your candy making to the next level will be a breeze.

What I like best about this book is that it teaches you a wide range of candy making skills, includes troubleshooting advice and photo demonstrations, and even guides you through the steps you’d need to take if you were trying to recreate a favourite candy without the recipe.

I think after working through some of Sharrock’s categories of sweets, next year’s holiday treat boxes will be the best they’ve ever been. In the meantime, I’m going to give Sharrock’s tuxedo fudge another try. I forgot to put the coconut into the bottom layer and added it to the top, instead. As a result, the bottom is creamy, but the top is a bit dry. Following the instructions should make my next attempt perfect. Thanks to Robert Robert Rose, Inc., I’m sharing the recipe with you. If you’re still on holidays next week, it would be a great way to start filling your freezer with goodies before the New Year’s resolutions set in.

Boxed

Tuxedo Fudge

Makes about 3 1/2 lbs (1.75 kg)

8- or 9-inch (20 or 23 cm) square pan, lined with parchment or buttered
2-quart heavy saucepan
Candy thermometer

Coconut Layer
2 cups (500 mL) granulated sugar
Pinch salt
1/2 cup (125 mL) butter or margarine
1/4 cup (60 mL) light (white) corn syrup
1/2 cup (125 mL) milk
1 tsp (5 mL) vanilla extract
1/2 cup (125 mL) sweetened flaked coconut

Chocolate Layer
2 cups (500 mL) granulated sugar
2 tbsp (30 mL) unsweetened cocoa powder
Pinch salt
1/2 cup (125 mL) butter or margarine
1/4 cup (60 mL) light (white) corn syrup
1/2 cup (125 mL) milk
1 tsp (5 mL) vanilla extract
1/2 cup (125 mL) pecans, in large pieces (optional)

1. To make the coconut layer: In heavy saucepan over low to medium-low heat, bring the sugar, salt, butter, corn syrup and milk to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves and the mixture begins to boil. Cover and cook 2 to 3 minutes to dissolve the sugar crystals on the sides of the pan. Remove the lid. Cook, stirring only as needed to prevent scorching, to the soft ball stage (234°F to 240°F/112°C to 116°C, with 236°F/113°C recommended).
2. Remove from the heat. Cool slightly, about 10 minutes. Add the vanilla. Beat by hand until the candy begins to thicken and lose its gloss. Stir in the coconut. Spread the candy into the prepared pan. Cool at room temperature while making the chocolate layer.
3. To make the chocolate layer: In a clean saucepan, combine the sugar and cocoa until well blended. Add the salt, butter, corn syrup and milk. Bring to a boil over low to medium-low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves and the mixture begins to boil. Cover and cook 2 to 3 minutes to dissolve the sugar crystals on the side of the pan. Remove the lid. Cook, stirring only as needed to prevent scorching, to the soft ball stage (234°F to 240°F/112°C to 116°C, with 236°F/113°C recommended).
4. Remove from the heat. Cool slightly, about 10 minutes. Add the vanilla. Beat by hand until the candy begins to thicken and lose its gloss. Stir in the pecans, if desired. Spread the chocolate layer over the coconut layer in the pan. Cool and cut into squares. Store in an airtight container.

Gift Giver’s Guide: For the sweet tooth, the nostalgic, and the cook who wants to extend their gifts from the kitchen beyond cookies and squares.

You can find the rest of this year’s reviews here and here..

Holiday Book Reviews – The Healthy Slow Cooker

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I don’t know about you, but this is the week when my Christmas shopping always begins in earnest. So, for the second year in a row, I’m bringing you three book reviews to help you cross a few names off your list.

I received a review copy of The Healthy Slow Cooker, Second Edition from Robert Rose Inc. Nevertheless, all opinions in the following post are my own.

I know that I post a lot about French food and desserts around here, but most of the time I try to cook healthy meals. It might seem challenging to do so when trying to balance the needs of an omnivore with a vegan-ish, gluten-free eater, but it isn’t really. We never ate very much bread with our meals and there are plenty of great grains that can satisfy our carbohydrate requirements. As for protein, I’ve always been of the mind that meat and dairy shouldn’t be the primary focus of weekly meals, so we were already eating a largely plant-based diet before my partner started his move toward veganism.

What can be challenging is making sure we have enough variety in our diet, so that we’re covering all the nutrient groups as we eat across the week. It’s easy to get into a routine, making the same few dishes over and over, with a little experimentation on the weekends. Much better to find ways to change things up more frequently.

One of my favourite ways to do that is to make use of my slow cooker. Not only can I fill it and forget it for the workday or overnight, having a large slow cooker means that I can make recipes in quantities that allow me to package and freeze several meals’ worth.

Unfortunately, a lot of slow cooker cookbooks focus on heavy meals that cycle through a limited roster of protein-starch-vegetable combinations. So, I was happy to find The Healthy Slow Cooker has a variety of recipes, both meat and plant-based, with a focus on using nutrient-dense ingredients. The best part is that all the recipes are gluten-free.

Judith Finlayson is well-known to Canadians as a writer and editor, but has become especially famous for her prolific publication of useful cookbooks. Many of them are slow cooker cookbooks, focusing on different health needs or dietary practices. The Healthy Slow Cooker is in its second edition, which came out earlier this year. This means that the recipes are updated, but more importantly, the nutrition tips and health information are more current now, too.

Those tips and information boxes, called “Mindful Morsels” and “Natural Wonders” are a welcome feature of Finlayson’s book. There are the kinds of information you might expect, like the sections breaking down the nutritional benefits of mushrooms or bell peppers, which help bring home the reasons for eating a wide variety of foods. But there are also sections that go into more depth, explaining the role of elements like fatty acids and micronutrients in our diets, why some foods which should always be bought from organic sources, or shopping with environmental concerns and sustainability in mind.

The recipes come from a number of culinary traditions, including Caribbean, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Asian flavours. They also make use of common ingredients, without ignoring some of the ingredients (think edamame or sunchokes) that have been showing up more and more in markets. There are lots of vegan or vegetarian dishes, while many of the recipes that weren’t explicitly vegetarian or vegan could easily be converted, like her Sweet Potato Coconut Curry. And most of the truly meat-based meals are freezable, ready for those times when I’m eating solo.

When I was deciding which recipe to share with you, I thought about how much of a boon fresh, vibrant food is on the winter table. Even though summer vegetables are long gone, many of them are available frozen, almost as nutrient-rich as when they were picked. Finlayson’s take on succotash was exactly what I was looking for, incorporating corn, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, and edamame with the warmth of paprika. It’s bright on the table, filling, and a good match for many different main courses. Best of all, it’s freezable, letting you enjoy it across the coldest months. (If you make it in summer, you can use garden-fresh ingredients and freeze some of it for winter.)

New Age Succotash

reprinted with permission from Judith Finlayson’s Healthy Slow Cooker

Serves 8

1 Medium to large (3 1/2 to 5 quart) slow cooker

1 tbsp (15 mL) olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
4 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig fresh rosemary or 2 tsp (10 mL) dried rosemary leaves, crumbled
1/2 tsp (2 mL) salt
1/2 tsp (2 mL) cracked black peppercorns
1 can (28 oz/796 mL) no-salt-added tomatoes, including juice, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups (375 mL) vegetable stock
4 cups (1 L) frozen shelled edamame
2 tsp (10 mL) paprika, dissolved in 2 tbsp (30 mL) water
4 cups (1 L) corn kernels, thawed if frozen
2 roasted red bell peppers, diced
1/2 cup (125 mL)finely chopped parsley leaves

In a skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions, celery and carrots and cook, stirring, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add garlic, rosemary, salt and peppercorns and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes with juice and vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Transfer to slow cooker stoneware.

Add edamame and stir well. Cover and cook on Low for 8 hours or on High for 4 hours, until mixture is hot and bubbly. Stir in paprika solution. Add corn, roasted red peppers and parsley and stir well. Cover and cook on High for 15 minutes, until corn is tender and mixture is heated through.

Variation
Spicy Succotash: For a livelier dish, stir in 1 can (4.5 oz./127 mL) mild green chiles along with the red peppers.

This is a terrific side for a braised tofu dish, or more traditionally, for a big platter of ribs. Finlayson includes a recipe for a corn and chile polenta in the cookbook, which would be a nice addition to either of these meals. Really, though, this dish would fit whenever you’d otherwise consider serving the usual boiled, steamed (or canned) vegetables.

I’ll be coming back to this cookbook often, both for the recipes and the information.

Gift Giver’s Guide: For the busy, the gluten-free, and those who want variety and flavour in their healthy menus.

Come back tomorrow for a review of a book that brings vegetarian eating to a new level.

A List of Lists for the Booklover

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I’m not much for gift guides. I’d rather visit the multitude of craft fairs and art sales that happen this month. Keeping it local, supporting crafters and artisans, finding unique and special gifts – all those good things.

What I do fall for, every time, are book lists. And the end of the year is full of them.

The Big Picture

The New York Times has released their list of 100 Notable Books of 2014. Not to be left out, the Globe & Mail released their own list of 100. NPR and the CBC put out shorter lists, while the Guardian asked notable writers for their picks instead.

Publisher’s Weekly breaks their list down into categories. I’ve linked to their non-fiction list, because it starts with one of the best books I read this year, but you can click through to their other lists at the top.

Around the World

The Telegraph’s picks for the best travel books of 2014. And the Detroit Free Press’ picks. Shutterstock has a list of their favourite travel photography books and Longitude Books promises titles that will entice you to explore regions around the world.

In the Kitchen

If you’re a little obsessed with cookbooks, like me, there’ are a number of “best cookbooks of all time” lists. Here are a few, from:

Out in the Garden

A British list from Gardens Illustrated. An American one from the American Horticultural Society. One for Canadians from The Star. And finally, another British one that asks whether the subject of gardening has anything more left to be said.

Those should keep you busy, if you weren’t busy enough at this time of year. No shame if you use these lists only when shopping for yourself. Well, not much shame.

Reading and Planning While the Year Wanes

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This past weekend, I was out in Aldergrove helping out with a Christmas craft fair that my mother helped organize. When I wasn’t busy uploading photos to the Facebook page and website, I was sneaking in breaks to read Eula Biss’ brilliant new book, On Immunity: An Innoculation.

It’s the most clear-headed view of vaccine controversies I’ve seen to date. But it’s also beautifully written and wide-ranging, in much the same manner as Rebecca Solnit’s work. I’ve got it out from the library at the moment, but I’m going to be buying it eventually and tracking down her previously published work, too.

Here are few more things on my ‘To Read’ pile:

Not that reading is the only thing on my agenda in the coming weeks. In the run up to the holidays, I’ll have a few cookbook reviews for you and I’ll be telling you about some of the craft fairs and seasonal events that are starting to fill up the calendar.

In the meantime, I’m picking out this year’s cookie swap recipes, planning my holiday gathering contributions, and finishing up putting the garden to bed. So much for spare time.

What are you up to as 2014 rapidly comes to a close?

FFWD – French Lentils

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I’m in a peripatetic state of mind, it seems. Right now I’m in the middle of several books, including Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth, and Rebecca Solnit’s latest book of essays, Men Explain Things to Me (if you’re not familiar with her, this might be a good place to start). I’m also re-reading Tamar Adler’s Everlasting Meal, as the easiness of summer garden eating is about to wane and I feel in need of a refresher on the simple, thrifty, respectful way she approaches food and eating.

One of the things I need to remember is that making more food than you’re going to eat for your next meal, in both quantity and variety, is one of the best ways to make sure you’re eating well at every meal.

This basic recipe for French lentils is exactly the sort of thing I want to have in the refrigerator when I’m wondering whether I really want to get into the kitchen and cook. The lentils are gently cooked in broth or water, infusing themselves with the flavours of the vegetables that are along for the ride. You can add cognac and shallots at the end, or not. You can chop up the vegetables and stir them back into the finished lentils, or not. You can serve them with another protein, sprinkle them with cheese, chill them and use them for a lentil salad later. Or, you can tuck into them just as they are.

I used vegetable broth in this batch, which makes them a nice vegan treat, though I sprinkled some with cheese, for me. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice that I only had about a half cup of French green lentils left, so I substituted brown lentils. The brown worked well, but I prefer the green – they are both gorgeous and delicious. Time to go back to the food co-op and stock up, since this is one of the recipes from Around My French Table that I make often, especially in the colder months.

You can find this week’s recipe at Serious Eats.

Find links to the rest of the French Fridays crew’s posts here: French Lentils

Autumnal Anticipation

Gardenish

We’ve had the first big rain of autumn here in Vancouver and though it seems we’re going to have at least a week’s reprieve, it’s got me thinking about hunkering down with cups of tea and bowls of soup. It also means there will be less outdoors and more books, music, and video to explore, until springtime rouses us.

So, my question to you is what are you looking forward to this fall and winter? Is it the big blockbusters like the latest installments of the Hunger Games and the Hobbit? Or are you itching to get your hands on books like Sarah Waters’ latest?

Here are some of the things I’m curious about this fall:

Film

Jimi: All Is By My Side promises to be more than the usual blockbuster biopic.

Dear White People is a satire that challenges persistent stereotypes.

Rosewater is Jon Stewart’s directorial debut and already getting good reviews.

The Imitation Game – Benedict Cumberbatch as a genius brutally betrayed by his country.

Wild features Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed and Amy Adams stars as a wronged artist in Big Eyes – a feminist double shot for the end of the year.

Finally, there’s Into the Woods – can Rob Marshall do Stephen Sondheim justice?

Television

Because it’s an Amazon production, I’m not sure when I’ll get the chance to see it, but Transparent looks like it could be a winner.

This is the year of comic book overload on the small screen – my pick is Agent Carter, for some much needed female presence, even though it’s not due to appear until 2015.

What’s with all the 2015 in my fall television picks? I guess there isn’t much that moves me, so let the countdown to Downton Abbey begin.

Of course, there’s The Walking Dead. I don’t care for horror much, but the writing on this show has made it one of my favourites.

Music (brought to you by Kevin)

Look for mandolin master Chris Thile and bassist Edgar Meyer’s new release, Bass & Mandolin, on September 9th.

That’s the same date as Ryan Adams releases his first album in three years. Until then, you can listen to it here.

Ólafur Arnalds gave a charming performance in Vancouver a few months back and we’re looking forward to a new release from his project with Janus Rasmussen, Kiasmos. And his label-mate Douglas Dare has a new EP coming out on September 22nd. And in case you hadn’t guessed we’re talking about Kevin’s favourite label here, there’s another Erased Tapes release worth checking out coming from A Winged Victory For The Sullen.

Books

Love Enough by Dionne Brand promises to be beautiful and heartbreaking by turns.

Eula Biss’ On Immunity: An Innoculation is a much-needed and wide-ranging exploration into the distrust of what were once thought of as revolutionary life-saving medical breakthroughs.

Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty sounds like the kind of peripatetic exploration of ideas I love.

Kathleen Winter travels Franklin’s path in Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage.

Those are just a few of this fall’s literary offerings. I suspect that I’m going to run out of holds at the library, working my way through the many I want to read.

Theatre

There’s too much to choose from at the Fringe Festival, which runs from September 4th to 14th this year, so I’ll just send you to their site.

2nd Story: Blood Alley is as much experience as performance.

The Wonderheads’ Grim & Fischer was a highlight for us last year and their new production, Loon, sounds just as good.

Last year’s inaugural East Van Panto was a huge hit. This year they tackle Cinderella and I’m guessing it will be the holidays’ hottest ticket.

I’m hoping I’ve whet your appetite for more exploration. After all, there’s visual arts, dance, museum exhibitions, seminars and lectures, workshops and guided tours – much more than I can detail here.

Now it’s your turn: What have I missed and what are the experiential gems coming up where you live?

Readers Need Sharpening, As Knives Do

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Literary works may best be seen not as texts with a fixed sense, but as matrices capable of generating a whole range of possible meanings. They do not so much contain meaning as produce it.

Terry Eagleton, from How to Read Literature

Freedom to Read week starts on February 23rd this year and “encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” It’s a time to stand up for works that have been banned or challenged and to speak up for the belief that one’s moral universe will not be shaken or shattered in the face of art that may not be in line with it.

So, it’s with more than a little chagrin that I turn to the topic that I’ve been thinking about for the last week or two. You may have heard that J.K. Rowling has had misgivings about one of the primary relationships in the Harry Potter series. That’s not what I’ve taken issue with; plenty of writers have had second thoughts or regrets about texts that their readers regard as fixed, as this insightful piece from The Millions demonstrates.

What has been bothering me is some of the response to Rowling’s declaration. Particularly the listicles ranking the lousiest matches in literature, with this one being the worst offender. It’s as though the characters from works of literature were lifted out of any contextual relationship to the novels they inhabit and dumped into a plot-driven television drama. It makes me want to confiscate the listicle-assemblers’ copies of the books they refer to and put them into more responsible hands.

Hence, the chagrin.

This isn’t the first time I’ve gone down this road (I know, I never learn). I once got into a scuffle with another reader of Tess of the D’Urbervilles on a reading forum, because she was shocked and disgusted that a woman of such low character could be the heroine of a romance [sic] novel. As I recall, I replied with an impassioned retort that Tess’ approach to the gallows was a profoundly feminist critique of the strictures of Victorian class and gender roles and that the angry reader should probably avoid reading literature in future. I just angered her further, mostly because she hadn’t read to the end of the book before she posted her review and now she knew the ending. That was the end of my online literary discussions.

In my defence, if that’s possible, it’s not that I’m taking issue with what people read, but with how they read it. You don’t need to have the same interpretation of Hardy’s novels as I do, but I wish more people would take the time to read literary novels as a whole, rather than focusing solely on the plot.

But, don’t take my word for it. Terry Eagleton’s latest book, How to Read Literature, is a funny, deft primer on how to approach literature. I read it around the same time those damnable listicles came out and I enjoyed the way he works through various aspects of the novel (nod to E.M. Forster intended), demonstrating the pleasure that can be had from paying closer attention to character, structure, and interpretation. It was a nice corrective. I’d also recommend Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, in a similar vein. Whether they’re reminders or road maps for the reader, they encourage deeper, more thoughtful engagements with reading.

In any case, you’re probably better off with the librarians than you are with me. They will encourage you to read deeply in the directions you choose, without any curmudgeonly grumbling about how you do it.

Sharing Books, Sharing Culture

Books Too

Much has been made of the sharing economy and I’m a big proponent of it myself, as I’ve mentioned before. But for many of us, our introduction to sharing came from outside the economic realm, when we signed up for our first library cards.

Growing up, our branch of the library was a little under two kilometers away and my siblings and I would often walk there on Saturdays to browse the shelves. Our school libraries were also well-stocked, so we each had stacks of books from both sources scattered around our rooms. After University, I began to neglect the library, as my suddenly greater discretionary income allowed me to develop a more robust book-buying habit. That dropped off in my mid-thirties when I realized that I could never own All The Books and my purchases became a little more discriminating. I started visiting the library more often again, borrowing the books that I knew I would likely only read once and test-driving the ones that would eventually make it into my permanent collection.

I’m lucky to have access to a great library system in Vancouver, which was recently declared the top library system in the world (along with Montréal’s). Other library systems are in jeopardy, though, like the hundreds of libraries lost in the UK. Zadie Smith‘s description of a failed battle to save a local library is heartbreaking. More chilling are accounts like Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold and the emerging stories about the dismantling of Canadian science libraries.

Free access to knowledge is a fragile thing and the Internet is a poor storehouse for an intellectual commons. The resources that a library provides cannot be matched on the Internet, at least not for free. I’m reminded of Janet Frame’s description of winning a year’s subscription to her local library (called the Athenaeum) in To the Is-Land, which allowed her entire family access to a world of books that had been closed to them. What kind of intellectual life do we want to bequeath to the future? One that is closed to all but a small coterie or one that allows for the emergence of talent from the great mass of people?

So, do the future a favour and show your local library a little love. You might be surprised what you find there beyond the stacks – digital resources, a wealth of movies, music, and television, and even handy apps that keep you up-to-date on your library activities. And if you’d like, tell me what you love about libraries in the comments below.