Afterword for Undaunted: The Best of BC BookWorld (Ronsdale Press 2013)
I’ve met many noteworthy people since I started publishing B.C. BookWorld, such as Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and enigmatic founder of Belize, George Price, but these people remain secondary. My life has been much more enriched by the thousands of B.C. authors I’ve come across running B.C. BookWorld. I am humbled and inspired by the constant influx of their intelligence.
After twenty-five years, I realize my job is akin to being a turnstile operator at Ellis Island, processing entrants. I am a gatekeeper for literature. It’s not glamorous. I lick the stamps, I do the banking. But my colleague David Lester and I are happy to be useful, keeping track of each and every B.C. book and author—making sure nobody gets invisiblized.
As of this sentence, there are 10,554 listings on our abcbookworld reference site, for and about B.C. authors. Seeing the books by these people is a daily tonic. (If you are down in the mouth about anything, there is a simple antidote: Learn something.) Every day I regard the task of producing B.C. BookWorld as a privilege because I get to learn so much. Witnessing the outpouring of fine books about the place I was born, as a fifth-generation Vancouverite, provides me with a foundation worth the perseverance required.
If ever you want to generate silence in room of supposedly educated people, just ask them to name the first premier of B.C. [John McCreight] or the first European mariner we can be certain reached B.C. waters [Juan Pérez—although the evidence that Juan de Fuca arrived before him is very strong]. The lovable historian Chuck Davis used to go into schools and show kids a photo of George Vancouver and they always guessed it was George Washington.
It is amazing how little most people know about British Columbia. That’s mainly because, until recently, the majority of people in B.C. were born outside the province. As much as B.C. BookWorld might appear to chiefly function as a literary periodical, its mandate becomes clearer if you regard B.C. BookWorld as an educational newspaper. It is my job to print the cultural news that is refracted in books.
If you are an anthropologist traveling to the heart of Borneo in 1800, and you hold up a mirror to people in loin cloths and they see their reflection for the first time, those tribesmen are going to get excited.
B.C. BookWorld is designed and written to serve as a cultural mirror in much the same way. We begin by assuming most people know next to nothing.
I grew up wearing Cowichan Indian sweaters. I knew the Trail Smoke-Eaters were world champions. I knew who Percy Williams was. Ma Murray. Flyin’ Phil Gaglardi. Three Against the Wildnerness by Eric Collier. Ripple Rock. Roderick Haig-Brown. It wasn’t difficult to see that B.C. BookWorld was a necessity by 1987, having been involved in the creation of the B.C. Book Prizes in 1985, and the first Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards before that. Since then we have created more literary prizes, as well as the abcbookworld reference site; and now there’s a new BC BookLook daily news service.
We hold up as many mirrors as we can.
Vancouver is Vladivostok and Toronto is Moscow. If people in Moscow don’t give a damn about what is happening in Vladivostok, the Vladivostokians mustn’t be surprised or upset. It’s up to everyone in Vladivostok to build their own institutions. The Torontonians have long done a good job trying to care about the Vancouverities, but the Vancouverites must mature and get rid of their parents. We have to grow up and grow our own cultural institutions.
Pierre Berton once told me that Canadians value institutions and Americans value individuals. I think that is far less true today than in the mid-1980s when we were talking, but Berton’s simple and big idea has served as a compass to set our course. From the first issue I have sought to make B.C. BookWorld into a cultural given, to institutionalize it, like the CBC. If I don’t put my name in it, except in the masthead, and I don’t give myself a column, it’s not lack of ego; it’s pragmatism.
It’s all about the reader holding that mirror.
John Fowles, somewhere in his novel Daniel Martin, wrote a line that I’ve never forgotten: “To draw attention to anything is to glorify it.”
My job, with the essential help of designer David Lester, is to glorify B.C. books and authors by simply drawing attention to them. Telling people what to read, or what to think, is a trap into which the literary aristocracy constantly falls, while degrading their enemies and promoting their friends. The public justifiably turns away from such elitist tomfoolery. That’s not our style.
If I want to attract as many readers as possible, it’s simply dumb to tell other people what they should think. The public quite rightly abhors such condescension. At B.C. BookWorld we strive to let the general public decide what is good and bad. If, for instance, you have a grandfather who loves fly fishing and he lives in the Okanagan, you will be pleased to buy him The Gilley for Christmas and he can be the person who passes judgment on its value as a fishing guide.
But first you have to learn The Gilley exists.
Only connect. Not all bureaucrats have understood this populist agenda—to reach as many people as possible, with as much information as possible, about as many B.C. books as possible—but the Canada Council, thank goodness, has been consistently supportive. The majority of revenues for B.C. BookWorld are self-generated by ads, largely because B.C. BookWorld has more readers than any other independent Canadian publication about books. We know people like B.C. BookWorld and that knowledge makes us deeply grateful and happy.
We expect to carry on. Just in case all the current e-hype is for real, we have newly created B.C. BookLook as a digital equivalent of the newspaper. Meanwhile, on behalf of Dave—who did the cartoons—and myself, I hope you enjoy this potpourri, and thanks for being readers.
– Ronsdale Press