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August 31, 2009

  • Where Books Go When They Die
  • imageThere’s one thing I adore about going up to the cottage (the cabin, the summer house, whatever you want to call it) and it’s not the proximity to the outdoors or the easy access to a lake or the distance between me and a city.

    No, what I love about the cottage is the décor. There’s something fundamentally transitional about it. It’s where everything goes once its fashionable use at home is over. “That brown checked sofa looks like an eyesore. Why don’t you take it to the dump?” “No, we can use it at the cottage.” “That’s fine. Send the dishes with them. There’s a sale on at Crate and Barrel.”

    The cottage, quite simply, is the place where furniture, fixtures and fittings go when they die: to the great rec room, if not in the sky, then by the lake. I adore the rustic piebaldness of it all. Living conditions as collage.

    If there’s one aspect of cottage décor I love more than anything, it’s the cottage bookshelf. Nowhere is there a greater barometer of a generations junk culture than this.

    Where else, outside of a used bookstore, would you find a copy of The Crash of ’79 by Paul Erdman. The book was a number 1 beststeller in 1976, now largely ignored. I remember seeing the paperback near the checkout at the Dominion grocery store in 1976, the deathless back cover prose screaming the dread to come in a matter of years:


    The countdown to the greatest economic disasters in history begins on the first page of this brilliant internationally bestselling thriller of power politics and high finance….

    Against a background of oil riches, Middle East rivalries and the ruthless machinations of the world’s top financiers who recognise no loyalties that can’t be put on a balance sheet, The Crash Of ‘79 thunders towards its explosive climax.

    Erdman had a quite respectable career producing what is largely a now dead genre, the financial thriller (perhaps not surprising in today’s economy). Looking at it now you can see it was a page-turner in its day even if all the business with the Shah of Iran being the lynchpin in the downfall of Western civilization now is wildly alternative history rather than mildly speculative future.

    Speaking of which, an all-important book in the cottage library has to be Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. It’s easy to forget how unbelievably influential this book was in the post-moonwalk era of the 1970s. Back in the day, my parents and every friend of my parents owned it—the distinctive process blue spine jutting out of a sea of beige. I don’t think anyone I knew actually read it—certainly not my parents where it sat beside several other unread books bought for my Mom’s birthday (including Alex Haley’s Roots and Rich Man Poor Man). I relied on the scratchy 16mm documentary based on it that I saw in a Future Studies class in High School.

    I found Future Shock on the bookshelf of my parents-in-law’s cottage along with several James Herriot collections in paperback, several Robert Ludlum thrillers, Arthur Hailey’s Airport and Hotel, Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, William Stevenson’s A Man Called Intrepid, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. It was like being back at the paperback spinner rack at Dominion in 1976 all over again.

    And of course there’s Canadiana. When I was growing up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, visits to friends’ cottages would inevitably turn up books from the The Canadian Centennial Library, a collection of slim, red-spined volumes published during Canada’s centennial year of 1967 that offered pictures and text about Canadian history. It seemed like everyone owned them, got bored with them and exiled them en masse to the cottage. Nowadays, Pierre Berton’s prolific output from the 1970s and 1980s prop up other books in cottages across Canada. My in-laws have his collection of true stories, The Wild Frontier, but in my travels I’ve usually found The National Dream, followed by The Last Spike, My Country and Klondike. (Curiously, no one seems to have what I think is Berton’s best book, The Dionne Years). What I’ve always loved about these books isn’t just the storytelling but the distinctive trade dress of Berton’s books, usually just featuring Berton’s name and the title in the same distinctive font against a solid colour background with minimal (or no) graphics. I loved how it gave Berton’s books substance—it made Pierre Berton a brand to be be trusted as much as Christie or Kraft or Molson.

    In terms of Canadian fiction writers, Farley Mowat and Mordecai Richler often seem to figure.in the cottage bookshelf. With Mowat I can understand the appeal, given his stories are all about the wilderness (personally, I’ve never had much interest in his work following a desultory reading of Lost In The Barrens in English class in 1981). Richler, however, is a mystery to me, especially as it’s usually only one novel (St. Urbain’s Horseman or The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). Two decades ago, you would have found Hugh MacLennan somewhere in the mix. Now he’s forgotten.

    These days, Tom Clancy seems to be the big up-and-comer to cottage bookshelves. I’m seeing The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games more and more. P.D. James is also turning up more often as Inspector Dalgliesh makes his final journey to where books go when they die.

    I’m always fascinated by what is absent from the cottage bookshelf. I’ve never seen any Timothy Findley or Isabelle Allende or John Irving or Michael Ondaatje. There’s something hopelessly middle class about it. Even the genre books rarely stray beyond mysteries, spy thrillers and westerns (Zane Grey, dead for 70 years, still has a hold here, though Larry McMurtry is growing). Science fiction is considered too outré, for the most part.

    I wonder what mass market treasures future generations will find at the cottage. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels? Stephen Colbert’s I Am America And So Can You? Maeve Binchy’s potboilers? The Celestine Prophecy? The DaVinci Code?

    Whatever the case, I hope they’ll be kind to the Ikea furniture bought sometime in the early part of this decade.


    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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