Podcast: Nora Young on the Digital and the Sacred (two parts)

Nora Young, host of CBC's Spark, and author of The Virtual Self (McClelland & Stewart).The act of protecting something that doesn’t involve performance or recording is really important.”

Nora Young is a writer-broadcaster, producer, and documentary-maker. She was the founding host and producer of “Definitely Not the Opera” and currently hosts CBC’s national radio show “Spark.” She is fascinated with the intersection of technology and culture: how changing technology affects the way we see ourselves, and each other.

Follow Nora Young: NoraYoung.ca | @nora3000 | Spark | The Sniffer

The Virtual Self, by Nora Young (McClleland & Stewart).Young has written an incredible book that’s right up my alley, called The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us (McClelland & Stewart). In it, she explores the impact of data mapping/self-tracking/life-caching—the virtual information we generate about ourselves, our own lives, our communities, and our government. Where we go, what we do, how we feel. The book then looks at the challenges around how we share that data—from Facebook status updates to Google Navigator—with an eye turned toward how we might build more responsive communities and governments. And while some would say that the privacy wars are over—and that we’ve lost—Young argues that the technologies and conversations are still in their early days, and that it’s citizens, not technocrats, who should lead the next leg of discussions over how and when our data is used.

Podcast, part one: (originally appeared at 49thShelf.com)

The impulse to self-track is not a new one. But with the advent of digital technologies—cheap devices, open-ended storage space and the ability to widely share our data—it would appear as if the digital realm has taken over. But Nora Young argues that there’s still a lot of ground to cover if we’re to take our banal and trivial information and translate it into creating better communities. She’s optimistic.

Nora and I chat/muse about the following:

  • the difference between self-tracking (personal accounting) and self-scrutiny (personal reflection)
  • working with data for purposes beyond target marketing
  • how the fringe activity of life-caching has become an almost unconscious daily activity
  • the development of critically-minded tools
  • how trivial information can be intelligently shared
  • how tools create opportunities for us to reground ourselves in the physical realm


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Podcast, part two: (Young agrees to chat longer and we get a little philosophical.)

On an app or program that changed the way she looked at data: “If [Rescue Time] knows all this stuff about my computer use, then digital changes things in more ways than just making it easy for us to capture and store [data], it’s inherent in the nature of using devices that they know, in quotation marks, how they’re being used. . . . But it also has this curiously objectifying character where you start to feel a little bit like a hamster on a wheel, measuring up to some sort of performance metric that you set for yourself, which somehow felt a little bit more driven than just having goals, it felt more submissive in some way. So for all those reasons, I think that [realization] was a watershed moment for me.”

On the usefulness of social data: “Even though Twitter is—at least, at this point—wildly unrepresentative of the population as a whole, it still serves a valuable role in terms of distributing information quickly and giving us rough-and-ready tools for quick information gathering.”

On the potential for data to to affect personal growth: “I think this is important, not being punitive about [collecting data], not being so performance-oriented, but saying, ‘I’m going to use this as an exercise in insight, I’m just going to see what emerges from the data and what that can tell me about who I am.’ I think we so often approach these things in a gold star performative kind of way, but I think it’s just from disinterestedingly collecting and looking at the data that what you might want to change about your life emerges.”

On digital text and the ability to engage with other readers via social reading apps: “I’m very connected to the solitary experience of reading. I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we doing these things because the technology is good at it, or because we really want to do it?’ It’s worth asking the question. What I do know is that the more deeply connected we become to our digital technologies, the more unusual it feels to be without them.”

On tuning out: “There’s a space for the spiritual that needs to be protected, and for that grounded space of really just listening to your body. . . . I’m not sure that we’re always going to be able to do that, actually. . . . Maybe it’s too early to say. Are we in this shock mode, the equivalent of right after the Gutenberg Revolution where everyone was going kablooie, everything that we knew about how we’re organizing things has changed, and that we’ll recover and say, ‘OK, remember that time in the early twenty-teens when everyone was monitoring and tracking everything?’ Will we recover from that? I don’t know.”


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People Have to Work to Love Their Children: Katrina Onstad (podcast)

“It happens all the time. People have to work to love their children. I think it’s a myth that it’s always immediate.”—Katrina Onstad on her latest novel, Everybody Has Everything

Everybody Has Everything, by Katrina OnstadElevator pitch: An urban couple, Ana and James, who do not have children of their own (for reasons revealed in the book’s opening), become the guardians of a two-year-old boy, Finn, in the aftermath of an accident, in which one of Finn’s parents dies and the other remains in a coma.

The crisis reveals cracks in the intimate relationship between Ana and James, and confronts themes of loss, doubt, and questions of longing, while exploring commentary around notions of modern/flexible parenting, nature vs. nurture, the struggle for some to feel the care they offer their loved ones, and the author’s own “generational obsessions” with what people do to fill the holes of absent parents, having herself grown up in the divorce generation of the 70s.

Onstad’s novel is ultimately a story about fulfillment, wholeness, and the illusion we’re told to strive for along the path of middle class acquisition—job, partner, children—that everybody can have everything. (You may have seen this response in The Atlantic to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” If so, you’ll particularly enjoy my chat with Onstad.)

I met with Onstad in the downtown Toronto offices of McClelland & Stewart Doubleday Canada Publishing Group. When I arrived, Onstad was already waiting in the lobby. I noted her book perched at reception alongside a children’s picture book. “Can you imagine Everybody Has Everything as a board book?”

We went from there . . .

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Katrina Onstad, author of Everybody Has EverythingAbout Katrina Onstad: Onstad’s second novel, Everybody Has Everything, came out in Canada in May, 2012 (McClelland & Stewart) and will be released by Grand Central in the US in 2013. Her first novel, How Happy to Be, was met with critical acclaim in 2006.

Katrina is also a freelance writer whose work on culture high and low appears in publications including The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, and Elle. Katrina has a column in the “Saturday Style” section of the national paper The Globe and Mail and is a regular contributor to Toronto Life magazine. At CBC.ca, she was head film critic and an on-line arts producer.

Born and raised in Vancouver, B.C., Katrina has an English degree from McGill and a Master’s from University of Toronto. She lives in Toronto with her family.

Librarian Scott Robins on How to Pick the Best Comics for Your Kids

“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.”—Emilie Buchwald

Scott Robins is the co-author (with Snow Wildsmith) of A Parent’s Guide to the Best Kids’ Comics: Choosing Titles Your Children Will Love (Krause Publications Bookstore). It’s a great primer for those who are new to graphic novels and comics, of all ages.

With a Foreword by Jeff Smith and Vijaya Iyer, of the award winning Bone series, in this guide, Robins and Wildsmith share their knowledge of children’s literature to recommend and review 100 age appropriate books (plus an additional 750 recommendations) for the children in your world.

The guide should easily appeal to caregivers, educators, librarians, youth, booksellers, event coordinators, and other creators.

I expect I’ll be paying a visit to Little Island Comics as soon as I’ve completed my own shopping list. (And, by that, I mean for me!)

Scott Robins and I chatted last week in the new event space above Glad Day Bookshop, where Robins is part owner. He’s also everything else under the sun: a librarian at Toronto Public Library and a past juror for the Joe Shuster Award. He also oversees the children’s programming for the annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival.

In this podcast, we talk about:

  • the process of selecting the 100 titles profiled in A Parent’s Guide to the Best Kids’ Comics
  • the key ingredients of a good children’s comic or graphic novel and how to write for children
  • the sequential appeal of comics to young readers
  • how comics are akin to soap operas and sitcoms in structure and arc
  • how series reading has impacted the adult trade market (Charlaine Harris and J.K. Rowling)
  • how weekly comics are the Harlequin model for young readers (OK, maybe I said that.)
  • the new comic reader vs the traditional comic reader
  • the comparison to Japan’s comic and graphic novels industry
  • Robins’ thoughts on the most successful long run series (Hint: It features one of the most torrid love triangles EVER!)
  • Robins’ pick for a new series to watch out for (Hint: She’s a three-time winner of the The John Newbery Medal, a literary award given by the Association for Library Service to Children.)

NOTE: We recorded this during the recent heatwave, after I made the inspired decision to ride my bike 15 kms to the storefront. That occasional bit of wind you hear is me wagging my tongue in an oscillating fan. Enjoy!

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Follow Scott Robins on Twitter: @scout101. Read his blog, “Good Comics for Kids,” at School Library Journal.

Warm Hearts of Africa and Books with Wings Fundraiser

There are causes you support because the cause is great.

There are causes you support because the people behind the cause are just as great.

Warm Hearts of Africa/Books With Wings: A Social Event With a Social Conscience

Thursday, June 14th, 2012
6:00 p.m.
The Thirty Bar
30 Carlton St,
$25 per ticket/$45 per couple includes live band food, and silent auction.

Tickets can purchased by clicking here.

Warm Hearts of Africa is a charitable movement founded by Michael Gregson and Matthew Steele, two friends and colleagues who undertook short term humanitarian missions in Malawi, assisting an HIV/AIDS volunteer organization. Upon returning to Canada in August of 06, after their first stint, they felt the need to empower those with whom they have worked. From these humble beginnings, the movement was set in motion across the country. Through goals of small business development, improvement in education and the strengthening of health care, we help Malawians help themselves.

Books with Wings sends new children’s books to First Nations children ages 3-9 living in remote communities in both northern BC and Manitoba. Books With Wings is a Toronto not-for-profit organization which provides brand new, quality picture books to First Nations children who reside in isolated Canadian communities. The organization consists of five dedicated volunteers who are driven by the belief that literacy, education and equal opportunity are critical elements in the transformation of the lives of our First Nations children. Books With Wings thus aims to encourage early literacy skills in children who do not have access to books of their own. We also seek to educate our book donors on the existing literacy-related challenges that affect our First Nations. We choose only literature which inspires curiosity, creativity and a love of reading. Ultimately, our goal is to befriend a young child and to help give him or her a brighter future through the written word.

Visit Warm Hearts of Africa and Books with Wings for more information about each organization.

From the site:

Join us for this year’s joint Warm Hearts of Africa/Books With Wings fundraising party and help us improve the lives of children in Malawi and of First Nations children living in Canada.

Featuring prominent Toronto musician, Ayron Mortley, complimentary hors d’oeuvres, and a silent auction with a selection of unique items to suit every taste and budget.

Come out for a great night with great people and give children the chance at an education!

New series asks indie booksellers: What’s Selling?

With the news that another indie bookstore is closing — Peterborough’s Titles Bookstore — a reader’s heart breaks. It’s not just the loss of yet another bookstore, but a long term conversation between booksellers, readers, publishers and writers that, in this case, extended almost twenty-five years. (Until the end of May 2012.)

When I was a publicist, I was taught to respect and revere the independent bookseller. There are accounts and there are relationships. Accounts push product. Relationships fuel our industry.

To be clear, every bookstore closure is the loss of an integral relationship. We all suffer.

And if it’s true that the average reader needs to hear about a book seven-eleven times before picking it up, we need this level of care for always, not just more than ever.

Indie booksellers, put plainly, are a reader’s/writer’s/publisher’s “man on the ground”.

They use to perform the same function for the media.

Did you know that before BookNet Canada started gathering sales data, and bookstores started volunteering sales data, the average bestseller list was curated via phone calls and emails? Editors would touch base with booksellers to ask, “What’s selling?” Not the truest  data, but let’s focus on the conversation, because it’s a nice one to think about.

The Globe and Mail: “Where’s the number for [insert indie bookseller here] . . . Never mind! I got it!” *ring* *ring*
Bookseller: “Hello?”
The Globe and Mail: “‘sup? What’s sellin’?”
Bookseller: “Hey! I’ve been waiting for your call, ’cause, you know, [insert season or reason here] must be in the air, because we just cannot keep [insert title here] on the shelves. It’s really quite remarkable! Selling like hotcakes, like crocheted doilies at a church bazaar, like Slushies in Hell—”
The Globe and Mail: “Got it.”

So. I’m placing the call.

Starting Tuesday, May 1 at 2 p.m. ET, I’ll have a weekly chat on Twitter with an indie bookseller to ask: “What’s selling?”

Other questions will include some or all of the following:

“What’s a comparable title?”
“Do you have any events coming up you’d like the kids to know about?”
“What’s good supplementary reading for Fifty Shades of Grey?”
“I’m heading into the desert on a horse with no name. Quick, what book should I bring?”

We’re using the hashtag #indiebooksellers. Join the conversation!

The first indie up is Words Worth Books in Waterloo.
Visit them online here.
Walk into their store and buy something here.
Follow them on Twitter here: @bookswordsworth

As always, you can find me at @bookmadam and @seenreading. If you’re an indie bookstore on Twitter and would like to chat, contact me.

See you Tuesday! #indiebooksellers

Seen Reading’s Missed Connections

I’ve started a project called Will It Stick? To learn more about it, and past/present contenders for my first $1,000,000, read this introductory post.

To recap, each round of Will It Stick? gives me SIX posts to draft out an idea. At the end of six posts, we sit back and ask, Will It Stick? A “No” results in me archiving the idea for future consideration. A “Yes” results in me putting the idea into more serious development, here, or elsewhere with a partner.

Some ideas will present themselves all but fully-formed, only to reveal a shocking omission that presents an insurmountable challenge. (Defeatist.)

Other ideas will appear as a stream-of-consciousness ramble, out of which one tiny element will reveal itself as the answer to all our hopes and dreams. (Optimist.)

Most ideas will flatline until revived, possibly by someone other than me. (Frustrated Optimist.)

The Idea: Seen Reading’s Missed Connections

The first candidate in this inaugural round of Will It Stick? is something I’d like to call “Seen Reading’s Missed Connections,” something that combines two things that turn my crank as both Voyeur and Madam: an online tally of what people are reading and where + flirty excuses to talk to people about the books they’re reading.

If you’re familiar with the idea of the “Missed Connection,” born in the back pages of free weekly newspapers around the world, the premise is simple. It looks something like this.

You. Ezra’s Pound. Sitting on patio. Red scarf. Me. On bike. Asked where I could find the nearest ATM.

But what if the same message included a few more details?

You. Ezra’s Pound. Sitting on patio. Red scarf. Reading The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder. Me. On bike. Asked where I could find the nearest ATM. (Love Snyder’s short stories. Have you read Hair Hat?)

The Rough Draft:

Create an online hub where visitors can create a profile (to include reading interests) and post their sightings/missed connections. If someone responds, they get an alert. They can also opt to let others contact them based on their reading interests. Conversations begin. Maybe a book club is formed. Maybe a few crazy kids find love in the stacks. Publishers have a new way to track how and when their books are being read. (Less creepy data-mining than happy, useful encounters.) An author learns their book was “seen,” and it makes their day.

The Challenges/Opportunities:

How to organize the site?
What does it look like?
Is it a cheap and cheerful Craig’s List-like interface?
How to make it global?
How to moderate the site?
How to monetize the site?
Should publishers and booksellers be allowed to play? If so, how?

That’s where the idea starts. I have five more posts before we ask . . . Will It Stick?

Chirp in with your thoughts!

Next post: Branding. Once an image is attached to an idea, how much does it influence your opinion? I’ll toss up some pictures to see which ones draw you in, and which ones send you running for the hills.

Seen Reading brings the heat to Pongapalooza

May 8th, 2012 is the first annual Pongapalooza event, a ping pong tournament at SPiN Toronto in support of First Book Canada, an organization that brings awareness to low literacy rates in Canada and gets new books to children in need.

I’ve been asked to participate as an honorary team captain for Pongapalooza. Or, as it’s become affectionately known to me, Pongadongadingdong, because I never spell it right the first time.

First Book Canada stats to blow your mind:

  • 90 million books have been donated to date;
  • 35,000 books donated each day;
  • More than 29 million children across Canada and the United States live in low-income households. Most of these children have no age-appropriate books at home, and the classrooms and programs they attend are woefully under-resourced. Approximately two-thirds of these schools and programs cannot afford to buy books at retail prices.

While I’m thrilled to participate in Pongapingdongdongarama, I won’t lie, I’m somewhat relieved that I won’t actually be playing. It’s not because I don’t have a wicked wrist—I do. I played racquetball off a painted brick ball at the local “Y” as a child, so there’s nothing you can’t toss at me that I can’t toss back. (I toppled my water just as I wrote that and may have fried my laptop.) And, yes, it’s true, I did once break a girl’s nose with a shuttlecock off my badminton overhead shot. But . . . yesss . . . it’s plausible that I’ve been reprimanded a few times — maybe more — for foul language when my ball hits the tin on the squash court.* It’s probably for the best that I simply scream encouragement from the sidelines.

*While the above is true, so is the fact that I’ve won some version of “The Good Sport Award” in all things sporting and leisurely. We’re going to have a great time! You should come watch!

I mean, check out the gallery of honorary captains. We’re a hot lot! Get your spectator tickets and check us out. They’re only $25! Buy them here.

Will It Stick?

Here are some my favourite, famous/infamous past Will It Stick? projects.


DJ Book Madam started out as nothing more than a desire to keep my fellow publishing cohorts company every Friday morning during the summer season by streaming thematic playlists each Friday morning. I posted the channel to Twitter and Facebook, and soon others jumped on the bandwagon to request songs using the hashtag #djbookmadam. Before long, the average “show” ran anywhere from 1-2 hours.

Frequency: weekly
Lifetime: many months
Interest level: high
Niche group: music lovers
Biggest challenge: maintenance (only so many hours in the day)

If Pets Had Author Photos

I like to take pictures of my cat. On occasion, he strikes a pose as if sitting for an author photo, something about the way he cocks his head or places his paws. Other times, it was something about the lighting or scene that might remind me of The Obscured Ageless Author Photo, or The “I Was Up Too Late at an Appearance but Promised to Sit for an Interview with a Local Newspaper” Photo. Or, The Hands Under Chin Author Photo. Or, The Only Author Photo Said Author Will Ever, Ever, Ever Use because It Can’t Get Any Better Than This Photo.

Frequency: one-time batch post of six images
Lifetime: one-time batch post of six images
Interest level: very high
Niche group: animal lovers
Biggest challenge: new contributors

Writers Reading Recipes

Food writing is a craft unto itself. Food is a craft unto itself. Recipes can read like poetry. Writers like to characterize text. Add ‘em up, and you have Writers Reading Recipes. The results were charming, hilarious and always mouth-watering.

Contributors to Writers Reading Recipes included:

Brian Francis
Kristen Den Hartog
Alison Pick
Trevor Cole
Iain Reid
Teri Vlassopoulos
Sarah Leavitt
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
Kim Moritsugu
Darcie Friesen Hossack

Frequency: weekly
Lifetime: six weeks
Interest level: very high
Niche group: foodies and writers
Biggest challenge: new contributors

Reliable Experts

Reliable Experts was a short-lived but deeply-loved short essay series in which authors talked about topics they’d unwittingly become experts in as the result of having done research for a book. It was up to the reader to determine if the information was factually reliable or otherwise. It stemmed from an interview I saw when Matt Damon appeared on The Oprah Winfrey show around the premiere of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Oprah congratulated Damon on transforming himself into an accomplished pianist for the film, to which he responded that he’d only learned one piece of music for a scene.

Contributions to Reliable Experts included:

Claire Cameron on line painting (The Line Painter)
Carolyn Black on disavowing expertise (The Odious Child)
Julie Booker on gummy bear sex (Up, Up, Up)

Frequency: weekly
Lifetime: three weeks
Interest level: medium
Niche group: armchair academics
Biggest challenge: new contributors

Julie Wilson on CBC’s All in a Weekend

Sockibus microphonicus: All in a Weekend (CBC), April 14, 2012.

I had a lovely conversation with Sonali Karnick for today’s episode of All in a Weekend (CBC). The piece runs about 9 minutes, so hit the loo and grab a cuppa. Listen at CBC.ca.

I’m in Quebec City for the ImagiNation Writers’ Festival to promote Seen Reading and to talk about publishing as art, commerce — and one heck of a long slog — alongside Miguel Syjuco.

My time here has been spent buying more books than food, marveling at the architecture, double-fisting croissants and facing the harsh reality that eight years of French studies has all but been forgotten.

Tiny doughnuts from Les Delices de l'Erable, Old Quebec.

Tiny doughnuts from Les Delices de l'Erable, Old Quebec.

One item of note:

I’d just like to put down somewhere that I didn’t get the tiny, microwaved doughnuts drowned in maple syrup at Les Delices de l’Erable (.75/doughnut for four) because I’m a tourist; I just can’t pass up a tiny doughnut. They’re like little orphans. They feel loved in my belly!

Look at the sunny, happy, tiny doughnuts — the tiny, cakey doughnuts that took a full twenty-four hours to fully expire. Other things in my belly include salami, dried mango and wheat beer. Wait, I had some almonds! Unsalted! Tragedy avoided.