Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Caretakers of Journeys

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Once upon a time, I decided to come and live in Canada for a year. To have an adventure, work in a Canadian bookstore, learn Canadian things and meet Canadian people.

Now, more than half a decade later (and many camping, canoe and road trips later), I’m still here, and I make an excellent s’more. And by the time you read this my significant others will have moved here to join me. My inanimate significant others that is: my books.

After whittling down my collection little by little during trips back to England over the years; after various instances of asking my mum to mail a paperback to me so I could get it signed at IFOA; after re-buying more than one book (the OED, The Catcher in the Rye, essential things you will always need and want to look at from time to time); after all of this, and realizing that I was unlikely to be reuniting myself with my books on the British side of the ocean any time soon, I packed ’em up and shipped ’em over. They’re in a cargo hold somewhere as I type.

While fireworks popped, banged and fizzed in celebration of Canada Day, I was packing up my literary collection in this country too, in preparation for uniting my British and Canadian libraries in a new living room in another part of town. And though in sealing shut the final box my feelings towards my books had veered a few degrees south of warm (so very many boxes), the figurative journey the packing process took me on more than made up for the literal heavy feeling towards it.

I learned, for instance, that I’m more likely to think twice about discarding a book if the random ticket/receipt/scrap of paper/clothing label I happened to shove inside it as a bookmark has sentimental value than if it has been signed to me by the author. (I apologize to all authors for this cruelty and understand if you are henceforth loath to write nice messages to me on your title pages.)

VIA Rail ticket-stub bookmarks show I read Robertson Davies and David Mitchell when on a cross-Canada train trip in spring 2007. A cardboard cut-out Cadbury’s bookmark in the shape of some sort of cartoon dinosaur tells me I read (possibly pimply faced from chocolate consumption) Manuel Rivas’s The Carpenter’s Pencil at Easter. A British Airways boarding pass stub on page 150 of Don DeLillo’s Underworld reminds me that a) I score a D for effort as far as getting to the end of that one goes, and b) that it was the single book (Rough Guide to Toronto excepted) that I brought with me the day I moved to this fine city (I managed somehow to bring 14 pairs of shoes though). My carry-on was overweight but the lady at check-in at London Heathrow looked at the doorstop book and said that if I took it out my bag and carried it through in my hand I’d get away with it. Obviously I can’t ever throw this book away now, whether or not I try to finish it.

I also learned as I packed that a library — in its curated presentation of one’s taste in literature, music, pop culture; one’s foreign travel and culinary adventure; one’s aspirations to learn about and master new disciplines and skills — is like an intimate version of Pinterest or Facebook, from before we made all these things public, from when you had to invite someone into your home for them to eye your wall (or the beshelved part of it, at least) and get the measure of you. I know I’m not alone in not wanting to lend people books because of the glaring holes the missing pieces leave in the puzzle of my collection. No wonder I’m excited to be reunited with the England-formed part of it: my library is a portrait of me.

Foreign objects from a foreign land that they are, my books have to be “declared” on their way into Canada (I am evilly polluting the market with my editions that may have no Canadian rights). Their monetary worth isn’t so much, and thankfully no tax threshold has yet been applied to units of sentimental value, so the burden isn’t an onerous one. Should the books wind up in a watery grave in the middle of the Atlantic I could replace them all on eBay for a buck a piece, and yet of course I couldn’t replace any of them at all. Not really. How can you replace that faded BART train ticket from the Slouching Towards Bethlehem you read in San Francisco? Or the “to do” list inside a book you read in a hurry before a job interview?

Philosopher Alain de Botton has said that “journeys are the midwives of books,” and perhaps that cycle continues. A portable form of entertainment can’t help but become a vessel for the stories that continue to be acted out around it. Books, in that respect, become the makers and caretakers of journeys, too.

Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, a freelance publicist for many of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s literary award and fundraising programs, and a member of PEN Canada’s Board of Directors, where she serves as Events Chair. One or two days a week Becky works as a bookseller at Toronto indie Type. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

Read Becky Toyne's past columns in the Open Book Archives.

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