Back in 2011, I made a list of all the book reviews I had ever written and I posted it to this website. The first review I ever published, Milan Kundera’s Immortality, appeared in the University of Waterloo student newspaper, Imprint, in September 1991, which meant my list three years ago captured two decades of book reviewing.
I thought I would collect my reviews and literary essays, possibly other nonfiction, and make a manuscript, perhaps even get a book out of it. I went as far as to give it a title (see photograph): Reading & Ranking: Selected Essays & Reviews – 1991-2011.
The subtitle was apparently going to be: Canadian Literature from the Back of the Class. Hmm.
Reading & Ranking is an essay I wrote in 2006 on the New York Times’ survey of best American novels, 1980-2005, and the moderated on-line conversation the newspaper hosted from May 22-26 that year between two novelists and two critics. It seemed not only a good title, but a good introduction to a series of book reviews and literary essays, such as my piece on the short stories of Carol Shields.
The summer of 2011 was our summer of sorting things out. Re-building. Getting ready to “return” to normal. Kate’s chemotherapy was over. Her surgery was done. Her radiation treatments finished. But we were not back to normal. We were trying to get ourselves righted. Sorting out this manuscript was part of my process of righting myself.
Then the cancer came back. I kept sorting my things, writing new reviews, and even bringing back The Danforth Review to publish new fiction. We were dogged about keeping on. But I could never bring the fragments of this manuscript together. Did the world need another book? No. Who cared? No one. Canadian literature from the back of the class? I felt the ground disappearing beneath me. I no longer felt any foundation for making any kind of judgements. Any truth I felt I might have captured dissolved.
But this past weekend, I dug out my draft table of contents and considered it again. I feel like I am meeting someone I once knew, but haven’t seen in a long time. I did this? That was me? I don’t think so. I feel a renewed interest in putting this manuscript together as a project of self-discovery. There’s some interesting things back there. What the heck?
Ranking? I’m not that kind of critic. I don’t like “Best of …” lists. But I do like rubbing things together to see what results. I wrote some reviews for money, and others because I just wanted to. I liked the discovery of new things, and over two decades evolved in my approach somewhat, but also not really. It’s amazing to read reviews I wrote while an undergraduate and hear that voice, my voice and not my voice. I would say different things about those books today, but I also know why that guy wrote what he did. I get it. And it’s nice to visit with him.
I think I’m going to enjoy rubbing different reviews together and coming up with something that might be a book. I might even assign myself some new books to read, to fill in the gaps. I have some views about literature in Canada, and they might not be as fragmented as I once thought.