Top Shelf Ep. 6: Books and Characters That Explain Us to Ourselves

Fiction is important in the real world for approximately 32,234 reasons, but one of the best is that it helps readers figure out who we are. A key way this happens is through the author's creation of unforgettable characters with idiosyncrasies, loves, challenges, faults, and triumphs. As readers we attach ourselves to these characters, often admiring them, sometimes hurting with them, sometimes laughing with them, sometimes disliking them. Along the way, we ask ourselves, "In what way am I like him/her?" or "What would I do in this situation?" 

When the book ends, characters often stay with us, sometimes for our whole lives, and we think of them as we progress along our own paths. We use them as touchstones for the people we have become and the people we want to be.

That's what this edition of Top Shelf—the series where we compile great lists and posts on 49th Shelf—is about. It's a collection of guest-contributed lists whose books explore identity via compelling characters. The stories are so good we may forget the questions at their heart, but the questions persist long after the last page. What is male? What is female? What is queer? What is changing? And, what does it mean for me?


Tired Masculinity, a list by Garth Martens: This list was inspired by Martens' work on construction sites with their notorious moulds of how men should be men. Martens writes, "The books I've chosen contribute to a conversation about masculinity. They don't offer new visions of masculinity, but they complicate the stereotype, the archetype, of the ordinary heterosexual man, whoever that is. They refuse the blinkered, reductive view. I've worked seven years off and on construction sites in Western Canada where there were seldom any women. The men I've known shared standards by which they measured themselves men. Eager to fit this role, each man nevertheless veered from it in astonishing ways."

Garth Martens is a graduate of the University of Victoria's MFA program. Garth was the winner of the 2010 Bronwen Wallace Award for most promising Canadian writer under 35. He is a former member of The Malahat Review's poetry editorial board and The Open Space Arts Society's Board of Directors.

Imperfect People, a list by Caroline Adderson: Of this list, Adderson writes: "I am partial to imperfect characters, the kind of people we sidestep in real life because they make us uncomfortable, because we are afraid of them, because we are afraid of being them. How much easier to turn and face them when they are between the covers of a book! This embracing of the imperfect exemplifies, I think, what the act of reading (and for that matter writing) actually is—an act of compassion: com + pati = to suffer with. Through literature we gain privileged access to the private thoughts and feelings of a character and so become them and suffer with them."

Caroline Adderson is the author of novels, short stories, and books for young readers. You can see some of her books here.

Unconventional Heroines, a list by Stacey May Fowles: For this list, Fowles selected heroines who in one way or another, buck the idea of what a woman should be and chart their own territory instead. Fowles is the author of several books, the most recent being Infidelity, one of the books on our Most Anticipated Fall 2013 list.

Father's Day List, a list by Bob Armstrong: Like Martens' list, this one boasts a cast of characters who struggle and chafe in the manboots they're meant to be wearing. Bob Armstrong is a novelist, playwright, book reviewer, and freelance writer who lives with his wife and son in Winnipeg. His 2011 comic novel, Dadolescence, grew out of a Fringe Festival hit about a stay-at-home father and his son, which he performed with his then-twelve-year-old son Sam in 2007.


Queer Fiction, a list by Zoe Whittall: One of the books on this list, Whittall writes, "had me weeping and I'm really not easily moved." All Whittall's annotations, in fact, make us want to whip out our wallets and head to our nearest bookstore.

Zoe Whittall is the author of two literary novels—the Lambda award-winning Holding Still For As Long As Possible and Bottle Rocket Hearts. She has published one short novel for adults with low literacy skills called The Middle Ground (Orca Books).

December 3, 2013
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