Should People Make an Effort to Read Locally?

Last night I attended a lecture called Downtown Dialogues: Art and Architecture as Economic Development. The general thesis of the evening was that original, interesting art and architecture can be used as a tool to foster tourism and enhance economic development. Perhaps more importantly, it can even galvanize local residents to get off their couches and into local buildings, exhibits, installations, etc.

As these things tend to do, the conversation quickly mutated into the idea of Buying Local, or to be more specific, Spending Your Money Locally. Architecture was largely left by the wayside during the conversation, and was replaced by art as a whole (musicians, artists, filmmakers, etc.).

Although I specifically went there for the architectural discussion, my mind naturally wandered to what this all meant for local writers and publishers. How much emphasis should we be placing on reading local authors and spending our money on local publishers?

What I have are about a hundred questions and few, if any, answers. What I’d love is for all of us to join in on the discussion.

Ultimately, what is the virtue of reading local?

Local Shmocal: My Default Setting

When I hear someone guilting imploring others to read locally, my instincts kick in, the hairs on the back of my neck start to rise up, and I get quite agitated quite quickly. As long as I’ve been a reader, I’ve been a proponent of reading globally. Actually, globally is much too strong a word, and it’s about time someone noted that there doesn’t have to be such a clear delineation between local and global; there’s a lot of room in between those two extremes. What I am, then, is someone who encourages people to read outside of their current experience. A book doesn’t have to be about South African apartheid to expand your worldview; it can be about something much more closer to home.

The hairs on my neck rise up, though, at the notion that somehow “local” makes something intrinsically better. That there should be some built-in requirement to spend our time and money and energy on things that are happening within a 100-mile radius of where we were born (or, even, where we’ve chosen to live). This irks me because we live with more access to the rest of the world than ever. We aren’t defined by where we were born. We don’t have to limit ourselves to what exists directly around our house. And this is beautiful. We can be and do and want anything in the world, and yet we should limit ourselves to being and doing and wanting what’s available in our own town or city? I mean, dream bigger, people.

But this is where I stop. I tell myself that I’m probably looking at this issue the wrong way. I’m taking it to the extreme. What people mean when then say Read Local or Buy Local is–in most circumstances–when you can, buy local, or read local. Right?

So it’s with this more level-headed perspective I ask: are the benefits of reading local strong enough for people to make a concerted effort towards it? When we could be reading Atwood or King or Dostoevsky or Wallace, should we be reading our (likely) lesser-known, less-accomplished authors?

Idealism On Display?

In Shauna Pilgreen’s article “Why We Need to Read Local Books” she says, “I pick up and read local books to understand and learn better the roots and viewpoints of where I call home.” No one would argue against an effort like this. It’s virtuous. It’s expanding. It’s educational. Hopefully, it makes the reader more introspective and empathetic and active in regards to their community. In terms of reading local, this is the dream, isn’t it? This is what it’s all about.

But how often do local books actually help us learn about our roots and/or the viewpoints of our homes?

If you live in New York or San Francisco or London then you have a multitude of options for exciting, inspiring novels that teach you something about where you live. Its origins. Its history. Its relevance. Its lessons. But when you live in, say, I don’t know, Edmonton, Alberta? How many local books really make you understand or learn about the viewpoints of where you call home?

Just because a book is set near your home that doesn’t mean it has any bearing on who you are or where you want to go. It might just be set there. And if that’s the case, why should you pay any more attention to it than any other book?

Take, for example, Lawrence Miall’s Blind Spot, a book set in Edmonton, which I read last year. The book is set in Edmonton, but the Edmonton-ness of it is essentially irrelevant. It could have been set in dozens of places and the story could remain relatively unchanged. So is this the type of book I should make time to read? Does it help me better understand my roots, or where I call home? To further complicate things, Miall lives in Montreal and he was raised in the United Kingdom.

I would love to read the local opus that epitomized Edmonton, but does it exist? If so, I haven’t heard about it. There’s lots of books about Edmonton, but how much are they really about Edmonton? In these cases, why should reading local be a given? Creators need to meet readers half way, and give them a reason to care about the content if they’re going to position their book as required reading, geographically.

What’s the Actual Goal with the Read Local Movement?

If I’m being pessimistic honest, part of me thinks the Read Local movement is nothing more than a way of getting people to spend money where they live. It’s survivalism dressed up as altruism on the part of local authors and publishers. Do I kind of feel like shit saying that? Of course. But when there aren’t meaningful local works, what else can it be?

(I just want to take a moment here to ask anyone reading this to suggest as many local books to me as possible. I want to know what they are. I would love to find the quintessential Edmonton (or Alberta) novel, one that speaks to where we’ve come from and who we are today. I’m excited to hear all of your suggestions. Please prove me wrong with everything I’m saying here. I don’t want to be a humbug.)

Read Local BC (British Columbia) states, on their website, that “The Association of Book Publishers of BC is proud to present Read Local BC, a project to celebrate the extraordinary depth of BC publishing.” Now do you really–really–think they’re singularly motivated by the celebration of BC talent? These people, who stand to make money from the success of their authors? Notice that it’s not to celebrate the history of BC, or the extraordinary depth of the province’s people. It’s to celebrate BC publishing. I can’t help but be rubbed the wrong way.

Read Local, Think Global. Wait, What?

The Read Local BC campaign encourages the public to “Read Local, Buy Local, Think Global.” I mean, come on. Really?

If your goal is to think globally, why in the fuck would you read locally? That’s axiomatically incorrect. If you want to think globally, then read globally.

This is just pure manipulation. Greed dressed up as selflessness.

By-reading-a-local-book-you-gain-insight-thats-probably-not-a-view-like-yours.-300x300

Okay, it’s unfair of me to presume these people are entirely motivated by greed. Like Shauna Pilgreen, it could simply be ignorance and stupidity.

Whatever the cause, I can’t understand how these people are drawing a line between global thinking and local reading. Of course a local author can write about something that changes your view of something somewhere else in the world. It happens all the time, because there are a lot of brilliant authors out there. But to state it as a near certainty, or that reading local is somehow more likely to give you a global perspective than  a book written from another culture is absolutely ridiculous.

What, In Fact, Defines Local?

Even if we agreed that reading local is both good and necessary, how do we even make the distinction as to what constitutes local reading?

  • Is it books published by local publishing houses?
  • Is it books written by local authors?
  • What if it’s a book published locally but written by someone 5000 miles away?
  • What if it’s written by a local author but published on another continent?

The idea of reading local seems strangely arbitrary. I live in Edmonton, but for seven years I lived in Halifax. Right now, should I be reading about Edmonton because that’s my sphere? Am I given leeway to read less about Halifax now that I no longer call it home? If I move away from Edmonton, do these so called “required” Edmonton novels then become useless to me? If I move to Hamilton and find a few interesting authors there, why shouldn’t I have been reading those authors all along?

And if we expand our concept of local to, say, our countries, how does that make any sense? Seattle is much closer to Edmonton than Toronto, but it’s in America. So it’s less relevant? Sure, their politics are different, but isn’t that part of reading globally?

WHY DOES ANY OF THIS MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

The emphasis on reading local should (in my humble opinion) be, “Hey, our local writers are pretty talented, and it would benefit you to read them. They have wonderful ideas and they express them in wonderful ways. And your dollars are, most likely, better served (for you, in particular) to foster your own community than others. You don’t have to look to Toronto or New York or London to find talented authors with interesting stories, so why not get the best of both worlds (economically and artistically) and read local?”

Rather than, “Read local authors because local is intrinsically better. We won’t bother to explain why, though. “Local” finds its way onto millions of buttons for a reason, dummy.”

In the end, I’m all for local authors finding success. I want to read more of them. But don’t tell me local is better by default. Show me why our local authors matter. Give me examples. Hold my hand. And if you work in the publishing industry and there isn’t the great Edmonton novel for you to advocate (or whatever city you may be from), then maybe work with your local authors and foster some excitement about creating it. Just don’t sell me what isn’t there by guilting me into it via some imagined civic duty.

For information on what local books might be written in your area, consult the 100-Mile Book Diet on the 49th Shelf.


*For the record, Edmonton’s publishing community is wonderful. I used it as an example simply because I live there, not because of any perceived deficiencies. They put out a lot of great books every year, so this certainly wasn’t a slight against them. Keep up the good work! (I’m still looking for that Great Edmonton Novel, though…)

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2 thoughts on “Should People Make an Effort to Read Locally?

  1. Well, it looks like I’ve found you again.
    This post got me thinking about why I like to try to read local/CanLit. First of all, I also read lots of other stuff, because I’m not immune to all the buzz about the great books. And, I like the idea of reading books from other countries, too. But, I love to go looking for the little-known gems. And, I love finding them close to home. I think there is a sense of pride there (even though it doesn’t make any sense, since I have nothing to do with it, but it’s kind of like having pride in your own sports teams). But, I also like to spread the word and try to bring more attention to it. I know I don’t have a lot of influence, but, you know, it’s better than saying nothing.
    I do like the idea of supporting local businesses, etc, but I won’t buy or read something just because it’s local. I have to like it. However, I am more likely to spend my money on books from small publishers and not-as-well-known authors (not necessarily local ones), partly to support them, but also because my library is much less likely to have them.
    Thanks for making me think about my own reasons for reading locally/nationally!

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  2. Hey Naomi! I wanted to keep the blog under wraps for a few months before spreading the word about it, but I accidentally let it slip a few weeks ago so I guess that cat’s out of the bag. Glad to see you’ve found it.

    Your thought about finding local gems is a great one. There’s definitely something to be said about books that, for whatever reason, don’t garner national attention but very well could. I’ve read books by a local press in Edmonton because I specifically wanted to support them (NeWest Press, they’re fantastic), and absolutely loved some of them. These are books I never would have even heard of had I not decided to “read local.” (The Shore Girl, I’m looking at you.)

    Like

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