The link below is to an article concerning listening to an audiobook and a car accident that happened as a result.
A major new series on 100 Novels that Shaped Our World has been launched in the UK by the BBC. The wide-ranging journey through English literary history takes as its starting point the publication of The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), which has been hailed as the first English novel.
Despite an error-ridden plot and numerous structural quirks, Robinson Crusoe – which tells the story of a shipwrecked mariner – has had a profound impact on global literature (and the modern world at large) for the past 300 years. Despite the wealth of prose narrative that existed beforehand, some scholars believe that Daniel Defoe’s book was the first to combine all the elements that have become the hallmarks of the novel.
Fiction masquerading as fact, it is so much more than a novelisation of the true-life misfortunes of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish mariner who spent four years and four months as a castaway at sea after being marooned on an island by his captain. Daniel Defoe’s novel is a gritty survival story with genuine threat. But it’s also a thought-provoking parable of Christian sin, a critique of capitalist individualism, an expose of imperialist paranoia, and even a tale of the triumph of the human spirit.
From the point of view of the natives, it’s a myth of invasion – Crusoe is a sunburned demon who imposes European belief systems on them. There’s no getting beyond the fact that Friday, a man the narrator “saves” from the hands of the cannibals and takes under his wing, is cloyingly subservient to the unkempt foreigner, which upholds a racist ideology of white supremacy (whether it’s Crusoe’s or the author’s own). But we might think of Friday as the true hero. His humility and grace under pressure can serve as a compelling model for anyone in any culture. And his apparent feebleness is the only logical response to seeing for the first time the explosive effect of a fully loaded gun.
Then there’s Xury, a cheerful and charming lad whom Crusoe casually sells to a Portuguese captain (on the apparently agreeable grounds that after ten years of service, and a conversion to Christianity, the boy will be freed). Prior to that, Xury had faced his own terrible choice: subject himself to Crusoe’s will or be tossed overboard. This all happens shortly before Crusoe is shipwrecked. Instant karma, perhaps?
Defoe is certainly the master of visual motifs – and Crusoe’s gun is an especially potent one: it at once demonstrates the technological superiority of the Europeans, while signalling their moral deficiencies. After all, warfare does not a true civilisation make.
Seven years later Jonathan Swift spoofed the motif in Gulliver’s Travels, where the miniature protagonist ludicrously boasts of Britain’s prowess in modern weaponry to an astonished audience of gentle giants. Like Gulliver, Crusoe embodies the failings of his home society, even when stranded in strange lands.
The most terrifying moment in Defoe’s story, however, occurs when no one is around. Crusoe stumbles across a footprint in the sand on his seemingly deserted island. The footprint causes a profound crisis of consciousness. Who left it: a friend or foe? Man or monster? Will he be saved or brutally attacked? He’s never more alone than when the threat of uncertain human interaction looms. It’s a scene that has been retold throughout world culture for centuries.
Maxine Hong Kingston’s 1980 short story collection, China Men, a densely woven tale of the lives of Chinese immigrants in America, features a story about a sailor named Lo Bun Sun, who is seized by a debilitating fear when he stumbles across a human footprint on a beach. Even after the wind and rain had worn away the footprint, he continues to be haunted by it – it’s a poignant parable about the ceaseless emotional turmoil of an immigrant’s experience, perhaps, or even an ironic take on colonial exclusionism.
The scene is replayed for laughs in Willis Hall’s children’s book Vampire Island. Count Alucard, Skopka the wolf, and Peppina the parrot lazily loll on a marooned island – until they discover an unfeasibly large bootprint in the sand, which, we eventually learn, belongs to Frankenstein’s monster.
‘Robinsonades’: a cult is born
Defoe’s story of the 17th-century shipwrecked sailor is so famous it has led to the creation of a large and loose genre known as the “Robinsonade” – to which authors as diverse as James Gould Cozzens and John Maxwell Coetzee have contributed. A quick definition might call it a narrative in which a sole protagonist (the notional “Robinson” after whom the genre is named) is suddenly isolated from the comforts of civilisation, usually on an inhospitable island or planet.
But a Robinsonade does not have to be a novel: the principal characters, themes and settings of Robinson Crusoe have always been reworked into non-fictional genres, poems, plays, pantomimes, films, advertisements, and material culture at large.
Outside of literature, the most famous modern example is Cast Away, the 2000 movie starring Tom Hanks as Chuck, a hands-on FedEx executive. Stranded on a deserted tropical island for four years, Chuck desperately seeks to return home to the arms of his girlfriend Kelly (played by Helen Hunt) who, heart-wrenchingly, has mourned and moved on.
Chuck could not be more different from the workshy Crusoe who – despite claiming to be a keen advocate of the Protestant work ethic that shaped England’s economic progress – had rejected the cautions of his wise and grave father in the pursuit of adventure. Paranoid, guilty, hypocritical, and much more besides, Crusoe is not a hero. But he established the model of the flawed protagonist that remains so central to English culture.
Cuddling up in a big chair with a good book, either with a familiar adult reading to you or starting the first chapter of a book on your own is a fundamental part of childhood – emotionally as well as intellectually. Reading about people who are like yourself affects both your self-image and the likelihood you will enjoy reading. Becoming a habitual reader, in turn, affects your life options. Reading about people different from yourself also encourages empathy and cultural understanding.
But if the world of children’s books doesn’t include people who look like you, it is difficult to feel welcomed into reading, as the writer Darren Chetty, among others, has pointed out. And recent research suggests that child readers, especially, but not exclusively, readers of colour, are being seriously shortchanged.
Pigeonholed or sidelined
There simply aren’t enough authors and illustrators from diverse backgrounds being published, as academic Melanie Ramdarshan Bold pointed out in the 2019 Book Trust report on representation of people of colour among children’s book authors and illustrators. In fact, between 2007 and 2017, fewer than 2% of children’s book creators were British people of colour.
Authors of colour often feel isolated within the publishing industry. They are frequently encouraged to focus on racism and similar problem narratives, a recent report from Arts Council England (ACE) found. They do not have the freedom (as many white British authors do) to write across the broad spectrum of children’s literature genres if they want to be published.
While about a third of school-age children come from a minority ethnic background, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education found that only 7% of children’s books published in Britain in 2018 had a Black, Asian or minority ethnic character. With so few diverse children’s books being published, these books are deeply important.
When characters of colour appear in children’s books, they are rarely the protagonist with the agency to effect change. Recent books sometimes still depict characters of colour as “sidekicks” who support and affirm the white main character. Other times, the “diversity” in a book appears in the background only.
Characters are defined by their colour, which makes them irreconcilably “other”. Descriptive words of character features compare them to food or animals. Sometimes characters appear early on in a narrative, only to quickly disappear in favour of a refocus on the white character. These techniques can dehumanise people of colour.
Children’s nonfiction, including history and science, either ignores contributions of people of colour to British society or pigeonholes particular ethnic groups into certain spaces only – such as the history of British slavery (and very specifically not the history of Afro-Caribbean uprisings against British slavery).
In a single children’s book, this “sidelining” of people of colour may not matter. However, when it is the enduring norm, as Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie stressed in her 2009 Ted talk on the danger of a single story, it situates readers of colour on the sidelines, too. This affects the reader’s perception of who matters in books.
Working together for representation
While it would be easy to suggest that the problem lies with the British publishing industry alone, this is too simplistic. All people involved with children’s books need to participate in changing the narrative so that the books being published better represent the population and encourage all children to become readers, according to the ACE report.
This can be done in a variety of ways, and involves committed effort. Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, began dedicating some of its collecting efforts to culturally diverse children’s literature in 2015. This has resulted in the acquisition of materials relating to children’s books by the Guyanese-born British poets John Agard and Grace Nichols in 2019. The acquisition of diverse materials by a national museum is one way of indicating the importance of this material to Britain and to British children’s literature.
Another way of highlighting the critical importance of including all children in children’s books is through awards. The longest-running children’s book prizes, the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medal, have never been awarded to a British author of colour. Following the commissioning of a diversity review of the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medal, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) revised the judging criteria for the annual prizes. These new guidelines ask judges to consider representation within books as they are making selections. Other children’s book prizes, including the Little Rebels prize, focus on children’s literature that challenges the status quo in areas such as diversity.
These efforts, large and small, bring attention to children’s books with characters of colour that might otherwise slip under the book-buying public’s radar. And getting librarians, educators and parents, no matter what their ethnic, racial or cultural background, to buy books is critical.
Publishing is a market-driven industry. If books aren’t selling, publishers can make the case that there is no audience and therefore they do not need to publish more books with characters of colour. All children need to feel welcome in the book world, and all children need to understand the diversity of British society now and throughout history.
The story is all too familiar – yet it should command more attention from Canadians.
Recently, the Globe and Mail reported the Ben McNally bookstore, located on Bay Street a stone’s throw from Union Station, would close in 2020. Two days later, Rupert McNally, the founder’s son, confirmed the news on the store’s website. It had been open since 2007.
The reason for the closure is simple: the store will be replaced by an alleyway linking Bay Street to the alley behind it. This redevelopment is part of a project that the owner calls (ironically?) “The Bay Street Village.”
It is therefore a stupid example of gentrification that pits a modest shopkeeper against a greedy landowner.
The increase in the value of Toronto’s real estate is not exactly new. But we can see here an example of a paradigm that is not reassuring for the future of large cities: the profitability of businesses devoted to cultural property is hardly compatible with the overbidding in real estate.
Montréal is facing the same problem, and it affects all independent businesses. In August, the City gave the Commission on Economic and Urban Development and Housing the mandate to conduct public consultations on vacant space on commercial arteries. Several of these areas have rates ranging from 10 to 15 per cent.
A “hygienization” of urban centres
It has already been demonstrated that gentrification is largely based on a city’s ability to offer an interesting and diversified cultural life. Some, such as Richard Florida, have linked this phenomenon to the emergence of a “creative class.”
Geographer Oli Mould, in his excellent book, Against Creativity, published in 2018, attacks the very notion of creativity. He criticizes Richard Florida with virulence by brilliantly showing how “creative” gentrification can also act as a form of hygienization in urban centres that, ironically, hinders spontaneous citizen initiatives. To put it bluntly, once gentrification is completed, culture is more or less eliminated from the central districts.
We are interested in the case of the closure of the Ben McNally bookstore because it shows the consequences of real estate speculation on the vitality of a city and, ultimately, on culture on a national scale. Very quickly, after the announcement by the owners of the bookstore, many players in the Canadian publishing ecosystem expressed serious concerns.
That is because independent bookshops, Ben McNally in particular, do not belong to a large group or chain and aren’t limited to the sole function of selling books. They are truly a place of cultural mediation.
The purpose of booksellers is to introduce readers to more complex works that have received less media attention. In Kingston, Ont., the city where I live, the Novel Idea bookstore is part of the community life. It organizes meetings with local authors and federates a community of readers. In Montréal, bookstores such as Le port de tête, L’Écume des jours and Gallimard also have a clearly established cultural function.
Independent bookstores are places where demanding literature or radical essays can find readers. In short, the exact opposite of a virtual library where algorithms – certainly effective – guide readers’ tastes. There is no doubt that these algorithms favour books that are already selling well, regardless of the careful work of smaller publishers.
For a “bibliodiversity”
Why defend the independence of Canadian literature? Out of pure nationalism? Not exactly.
Rather, it is a question of how the bookstore can, in an era of advanced globalization, be a place of defence for the diversity of cultures, what some have referred to as bibliodiversity: a diversity of languages (in the case of Canada, English, French and Aboriginal literatures), but also socially equitable modes of production and dissemination. In this case, it ensures that cultural property produced with our public funds finds takers.
To put it simply, a book in Canada will sometimes be subsidized at the time of writing through creation grants, in its production through operating grants to publishers, and then sold by Amazon or, in the worst case, unsold due to a lack of suitable distribution locations. The Canadian book system provides a relatively good framework for its authors and publishers to deal with the horrors of the free market, in a spirit of cultural and economic protectionism. But in the current configuration, booksellers seem to be abandoned.
Make the less visible visible
But it is not simply a matter of defending a blurred Canadian identity. It is also a matter of making a diversity of identities visible. Think of the Racines bookstore in Montréal North, which highlights the culture and history of racialized authors. Or, the bookstore L’Euguélionne, which, by settling in the gay village in Montréal and adopting a cooperative structure, has made it its mission to offer a wide selection of literature on women and LGBPT2QIA groups.
An independent bookstore is therefore a meeting place for people from the neighbourhood but also, possibly, for affinity groups. Bookstores can be, in some contexts, sources of resistance. André Schiffrin states in L’argent et les mots – the third volume of a trilogy essential to understanding the effects of cultural globalization – that the number of New York bookstores has been divided by 10 since the post-war period.
Capitalism has its own rhythm, but also its own specific geography. Urban space is profoundly transformed by financial capitalism. Urban spaces are becoming expensive, and the closure of cultural spaces is, metaphorically and by extension, a reduction in the space for ideas and expression.
[ Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter. ]