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Stories of Digital and Literary Intersections

By kerryclare
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My debut novel, Mitzi Bytes, is the story of a woman who finds online fame but keeps her online identity a secret in her own life...until one day her secret gets out. I have found the book in good literary company in Spring 2017 with many other stories about online identities and internet experiences having real life consequences.
Mitzi Bytes

Mitzi Bytes

A Novel
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook Paperback

A Toronto Star Most Anticipated Book of the Year

“Entertaining, engaging and timely, Mitzi Bytes is a pleasure to read from start to finish.” —Toronto Star

A secret life is never secret for long.

Back at the beginning of the new millennium, when the Internet was still unknown territory, Sarah started an anonymous blog documenting her return to the dating scene after a devastating divorce. The blog was funny, brutally honest and sometimes outrageous. Readers loved it. Through her blog persona, …

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When You Find Out the World Is Against You

When You Find Out the World Is Against You

And Other Funny Memories About Awful Moments
edition:Paperback

The author of the New York Times bestseller Everything Is Perfect When You’re a Liar returns with a deeper and even funnier new collection of essays about the pleasures and perils of living in Kelly Oxford’s head.

 Kelly Oxford likes to blow up the internet. Whether it is with the kind of Tweets that lead Rolling Stone to name her one of the Funniest People on Twitter or with pictures of her hilariously adorable family (human and animal) or with something much more serious, like creating the …

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How to Be a Bawse

How to Be a Bawse

A Guide to Conquering Life
edition:Hardcover

From the 2017 People's Choice Award winner for Favorite YouTube Star comes the definitive guide to being a bawse: a person who exudes confidence, hustles relentlessly and smiles genuinely because he or she has fought through it all and made it out the other side.

Lilly Singh isn't just a superstar. She's Superwoman—which is also the name of her wildly popular YouTube channel. Funny, smart and insightful, the actress and comedian covers topics ranging from relationships to career choices to ever …

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Excerpt

Chapter 1

Play Nintendo

I’m sweating in my blue overalls as I look at all the obstacles ahead of me. I have three options: (1) pound my head on this brick block and hope for a star, (2) run and jump over the enemy, or (3) step on this turtle’s head and force him to retract into his shell. No matter which option I go with, the fact remains that the Koopa Troopa up ahead is going to stay there. I can’t control it or convince it that it’s actually a Ninja Turtle and thus is in the wrong game. That’s fine. No Ninja Turtles means more pizza for me, and I’m Italian, so this is all working out. I know the Koopa Troopa isn’t going to listen to me, and therefore I need to control the only thing I can—and that’s me, Mario.

Videogames are a great analogy for life. You go through levels, get thrown off by obstacles, and face several enemies. The game will become harder and harder, but it’s okay because you become smarter, faster, and more skilled. When playing a videogame, you control a character by making it jump, run, duck, and attack. I mean, that was back in my day when my Super Nintendo controller had two buttons. Today videogame controllers have as many buttons as a keyboard, so who knows what you can do. You can probably press A + Y + Z while twirling your left joystick and your character will sing the national anthem. Either way, the fact remains that your character is the only thing you can control in the game. The enemies will keep coming, the walls will keep shrinking, and the time will keep ticking away. It’s your job to navigate your character through a situation you cannot control.

That’s exactly how you should view life. A Bawse understands that there are many things in life you have no control over and it is inefficient to become frustrated by that reality. Not being able to control people and situations doesn’t make you powerless; it just means you have to exercise your power in a different way. If you can’t control people, then control your reaction to them. If you can’t control a situation, then prepare for it.

Before I started my career in the entertainment industry, I was the leader of a small dance company (if you could even call it that) in Toronto. We started off small, with only a few dancers, specializing in only Indian dance styles, but over time, in true Lilly fashion, I wanted to keep growing and expanding our horizons. Since I was little, I’ve had larger-than-life ideas. I never wanted to settle for something simple or mediocre, and as a result, when I did things, I wanted them to be the biggest and best things. There were so many other dance teams and companies around and I didn’t want to just be another addition to an already long list. I committed my days to transforming the company in the hopes of creating a dance empire that would take over the world. I really thought that was possible. We would be dancing Power Rangers who saved the world, one extended leg and pointed toe at a time. I decided to convert my basement into a full-blown office. We held auditions for dancers who were skilled in all forms of dance so that we could perform hip-hop, classical, and fusion in addition to what we were already doing. I organized photo shoots and video shoots and other creative marketing techniques. I had so much drive and determination that no injury, financial strain, or competition could steer me off my path. What I couldn’t see, however, was the one obstacle that was in front of me the entire time, and which caused everything to fall apart: the team itself.

I had such big dreams for the company and I was always willing to work for them. Without hesitation, I would pull all-nighters to put together marketing materials, spend money out of my own pocket to invest in what we needed, and drive myself crazy thinking of innovative ways to set ourselves apart. But then I would arrive at practice and deal with three dancers showing up late, one not showing up at all, and two of them leaving early. Getting people to put in work on events to help our brand was like pulling teeth. We often performed at weddings and thus needed to adhere to a professional dress code, yet some dancers would occasionally show up wearing shorts and flip-flops. I would get so frustrated with them because I was putting in so much work for this dream, but the reality of the situation was that the dream was mine, not theirs. I tried for years to control them and make them work for something they didn’t care about as much as I did, and it just didn’t work.

My dance company dreams faded away gradually, but the process was hastened by my discovery of YouTube. I remember feeling a new sensation the first time I uploaded a video. I wrote the script, shot it, edited it, and released it. No one else was involved or required, and the independence was exhilarating. Soon I developed an even greater drive and passion for my career as Superwoman than I’d had previously with my dance team. This time, however, I wasn’t trying to control a group of twenty people every time I needed something to get done. The only person I needed to control was the only person I could control, and that was me.

Today, of course, I have a team that surrounds me and helps me to build my business. But Lilly is still at the root of Superwoman. The success of Superwoman and the failure of my dance team helped me learn a very important lesson: work with what’s in your control. This lesson can be applied to so many situations in our lives. You get frustrated when your parents nag you, so every time they do, you storm out of the room. You can’t control your parents, so stop trying. Instead, use that energy to control your reaction the next time they nag you. You might not be able to smash a brick block and find a star that makes you invincible, but you can practice patience and build up a resistance to nagging. If none of that works, you can find the closest green tube and transport yourself out of the conversation.

Have you ever played a videogame then lost because you realized you were looking at the wrong part of the screen the whole time? You were so confused as to why your controller wasn’t working, but really you were just trying to control the wrong character. That’s what trying to control people is like in real life. We’re so often fixated on getting people to behave in accordance with what we want that we forget to focus on ourselves.

The best way to stop people from pushing your buttons is to start pushing your own.

A + Y + Z. Left joystick.

“O Canada.”

Chapter 2

Conquer your thoughts

Touch your nose. No, I’m serious. I want you to stop reading after this sentence and don’t resume until you take your right hand and use it to touch the tip of your nose.

Do it.

Look at you! What an impressive piece of machinery you are. Do you know what you just did? You were introduced to a thought and decided to act on it; your brain sent signals through your neurotransmitters, through your body, and into your arm, prompting it to move and touch your magnificent nose.

Why did I just make you touch your nose? Because I’m Simon and I run this town! No, but really, it was to show you that YOU control your mind; your mind doesn’t control you. You successfully directed your brain to touch your nose. Understanding your mind’s power is key to being a Bawse. Imagine using that same type of direction to instruct your mind to stop being negative, or jealous, or terrified. We often feel that we are slaves to biology. People say things like “I just can’t help but feel that way” or “I can’t control being jealous.” But I believe that, in most situations, we can teach our minds to function with more positivity and efficiency. In other words, by understanding that mushy sponge in our skulls, we can conquer our thoughts.

What does conquering your thoughts mean? First, it means you get to wear an awesome warrior costume, so congrats on that victory! #OOTD Also, it means understanding why you feel the way you feel, what prompts you to carry out certain actions, what causes specific reactions, and what circumstances lead you to make regrettable decisions. Once you discover all the ins and outs of your mind, you basically have the cheat code to your game of life. All you have to do is input the data and you have access to extra mental weapons, stronger protection, and new passageways. Notice I said YOUR game of life and not THE game of life. That’s because everyone’s mind is different. The cheat codes you discover for your mind cannot be applied to all of humanity. I’m not encouraging you to study the BIOLOGY of the brain (it is fascinating, but also, who has that much time?). I’m encouraging you to study your specific psychological makeup.

I was forced to learn how to conquer my thoughts because of the nature of my job. For six years I’ve been posting videos twice a week on the Internet. I have over 500 videos on my main channel and 500 videos on my second channel—that’s over 1,000 videos for people around the globe to view and judge as harshly as they desire. The Internet is wonderful and revolutionary, but let’s face it, it can also be extremely cruel. People feel they can say anything to you when they are sitting comfortably behind their computer screen being completely anonymous. When I first started posting videos, I got a lot of support (mostly because my friends and family would watch and they felt obligated to be nice. Also, I had a second account that I would use to compliment myself. Oops!), but with time I started to receive negative, hateful comments and I didn’t know how to react. Here are a few examples (word for word, without spellcheck) of the comments I’ve received:

This lily Singh paki ***** needs to die she’s everywhere I hate seeing her Bengali paki face I hope she gets cancer or her mum dies slowly j painfully leave focus tube alone up horrible black *****

This is why women shouldn’t have rights.

This video gave me cancer

she is so ****ing stupid. she only get famous because she hot and thst sells but she is still dumb. I hope someone shoots her

FUN!

Do hateful comments still bother me? Sometimes, but not as often. How did I deal with them? When people ask me this, my response is usually, “I developed a thick skin.” But what I really mean is, I learned how to conquer my thoughts. This is how I broke it down:

People are leaving mean comments.

Why?

Maybe it’s because my videos suck.

Do you say mean things to people when you think they suck?

No. Not unless I’m having a bad day or in a bad mood.

Maybe people leaving the negative comments are having a bad day. Maybe that’s what the comment is really about.

But the comments make me feel insecure.

Do you like your videos?

Yes.

So should your opinion of your videos be dependent on what other people think? Is that the type of person you want to be?

Not at all.

So it doesn’t make sense to let the negative opinions of others impact what you think.

Maybe I should stop making videos, though.

Does making videos make you happy?

Yes, very.

Do you believe you should value negative comments above your own happiness?

That doesn’t sound right. Maybe I should just reply to them?

Or you could spend more time replying to people that make you feel good so they’re more encouraged to keep supporting you.

Now, you may think a convo like this sounds a bit naive. OF COURSE people want to be happy and ignore negative comments, but it’s easier said than done. That’s why it’s important to closely analyze this conversation and discover all the cheat codes hidden within it.

“Maybe they’re having a bad day.” CHEAT CODE ONE: Lilly, when people do or say hurtful things to you, there’s a chance they may actually be upset about something else in their life.

“Should other opinions impact what you think about yourself?” CHEAT CODE TWO: Lilly, sometimes when you hear other opinions you’ll feel pressured to change your own. Before you enter into situations in which you will be confronted with a lot of opinions, make sure you strongly believe your own.

“I don’t want to stop making videos, because they make me happy.” CHEAT CODE THREE: Your happiness is stronger than fear. You can continue battling fear as long as your videos, make you happy. Make sure you prioritize creating content that makes you happy; otherwise fear and negativity will slowly take over.

“Maybe I should reply to them.” CHEAT CODE FOUR: Recognize that replying was suggested to make you feel better. Understand this impulse and catch it before you act on it. Make yourself feel better in a more constructive way.

The cheat codes I discovered while dealing with YouTube comments have been useful in so many areas of my life. When someone cuts me off while driving, I apply cheat code one so that I don’t overreact: the person driving could be upset about something in their life. Cutting me off wasn’t about ME. When a brand offers me a lot of money to make a video I don’t actually like, I implement cheat code three: my content has to make me happy, otherwise negativity will start to seep in. When I’m having an argument and want to make an unnecessary remark to get the last word in, I try to catch myself because I know I’m just trying to make myself feel better—thus cheat code four. If I’ve gotten myself into an upsetting situation, it’s usually because I ignored a cheat code or pattern in my behavior.

Conquering your thoughts is not a task that can be accomplished overnight, or over many nights, to be honest. It’s an ongoing process that requires frequent readjustment because your mind is constantly evolving. It requires you to ask yourself a lot of questions and to analyze the answers honestly. From now on start asking yourself WHY you feel a certain way, WHAT made you perform a certain action, and HOW you could do things differently. The information you discover is powerful because it helps you to discover patterns and in turn use your mind productively and efficiently. After all, your mind is your most powerful tool, but it’s not useful if you don’t know how to use it. It’s like trying to fix a printer with a stapler: it doesn’t work. Trust me, I’ve tried.

The key is to use a hammer because all printers suck.

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The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes

The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary

Wanda Jaynes is about to lose her job amidst a mountain of bills, and she suspects her musician boyfriend might be romantically interested in his friend, Trish. But Wanda’s life changes radically on a routine trip to the grocery store when a gunman enters the supermarket and opens fire.

The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes is the highly anticipated debut novel by Bridget Canning, one of the most promising new writers from Newfoundland, and is an energetic page-turner about the power of selflessnes …

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The Slip

The Slip

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : humorous, literary

In this wickedly funny novel, one bad afternoon and two regrettable comments make the inimitable Philip Sharpe go viral for all the worst reasons.

Dr. Philip Sharpe, absent-minded professor extraordinaire, teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto and is one of Canada’s most combative public intellectuals. But when a live TV debate with his fiercest rival goes horribly off the rails, an oblivious Philip says some things to her that he really shouldn’t have.

As a clip of Philip’s “sli …

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Excerpt

Monday, November 2

I would have run to little Naomi when she cried out, except I had to get the poppy to stay on. That seemed paramount as I stood in the master bedroom at 4 Metcalfe Street, getting ready for my TV appearance. The producer at CBC’s Power Today had emailed us all with her fourth reminder since Friday morning. Okay, folks: We’re in Remembrance Day mode as of Monday, so we ask all on-air guests to have the poppy prominently displayed for broadcast. We won’t have a box of them in the studio yet, so please bring your own. Should go on the left, over your heart. Yes, yes. I had a track record for being one of these careless dolts who loses four or five poppies to the wind and just gives up somewhere around November 7. I imagined hundreds of those plastic-and-felt florets I’d bought over the years clogging the gutters of Cabbagetown and the Annex, and the goddamn veterans counting up their gold like Scrooge McDuck. The things were clearly engineered to fall off. It became critical, in that moment, to get it fastened correctly. More critical than whatever else I planned to wear — brown tweed over blue shirt and some pleasantly centrist slacks — or my efforts to sooth the ginger flare of comb-over that sprang across my skull like the facehugger from Alien. (Cheryl Sneed, my fellow panellist and long-time nemesis on the Right, would make some green room remark about it, regardless. Either that or the wisp of PEI accent that still warped my rhotics — which I hammed up whenever I was in her presence, because I knew it annoyed her.) And, perhaps, more critical even than what my three-year-old daughter was screaming about down the hall, in the bathroom. Grace was on it, anyway. I heard her fly out of Naomi’s bedroom with a panicked Sweetie, are you OKAY? followed by a quick gush from the faucet. I plucked the poppy off my bureau, fluttered it like a parasol in the mirror. Wait — where was my tweed? Oh right, of course. I hurried into the hallway.
“Philip. Philip, are you there?”
I was not. I bounded up the stairs to my third-floor office, zagging around the Dora the Explorer doll lying on the hardwood beneath my feet. Entering my office, I found the tweed where I last left it: thrown over the arm of the futon. I nabbed the jacket and laid it flat across my desk, moving manuscript printouts from my next book (tentatively called “Christianity and Its Dissidents”) out of the way. I bent over and manoeuvred the flower over the lapel. I poked the steel pin into the pure virgin wool and pressed the poppy in as deep as it would go. Then I raised the jacket up and looked at it. Already the plastic blossom had slid a few millimetres out of the lapel.
Grace’s voice echoed from the hall and through the open office door.
“Philip — seriously, are you there or not?”
Just a minute, dear. I returned the jacket to the futon arm and then moved to the overflowing bookshelf on the opposite wall. I pulled down my author copy of Corporate Canada Today (Tuxedo House, 2014) and quickly confirmed a few facts about ODS Financial Group, which would be the subject of this afternoon’s Power Today interview. Yes, yes. Managing partner since ’99: Viktor Grozni. CFO: the lovely and talented Glenda Harkins-Smith. Market cap before the 2008 crash. Market cap just before Friday’s announcement. Number of Canadians with pensions directly managed by. Number of ancillary businesses shareholders had no idea existed. Amount of direct subsidy from the Harper Conservatives since 2011. Yes, yes. It was already there, all of it, in my head. Cheryl Sneed didn’t stand a chance.
Time to throw the jacket on and quickly help Grace with whatever she and Naomi were dealing with in the bathroom (the child had stopped screaming, but continued with a kind of hiccupy crying that seemed to reverberate through the whole house) before heading downtown. I turned and reached for my tweed, only to have my gaze hauled to the floor. There on the hardwood lay my poppy, face down like a drunkard.
Oh, that is it, I thought. Fucking veterans.
I grabbed the tweed and picked up the poppy before storming back down the stairs. Time for Plan B.
“Philip — Philip can you please come here.”
I hustled down to the main floor. Stole a glance at the clock on the kitchen wall. Oh God. I hurried to the door leading to our basement. My basement, since Grace and the kids rarely went down there. More oubliette than man cave, it had a set of stairs that descended almost vertically into that dark, unfinished gizzard. I marched down and popped on the light, which only marginally diminished the darkness, then went to my small workbench with the poppy and jacket in tow. I rested the tweed flat and placed the scarlet bloom onto the lapel. Then I grabbed the industrial stapler I had bought at Canadian Tire to assemble some rather complicated birthday party decorations for my stepdaughter, Simone, when she turned thirteen a few weeks ago. The tool was heavy in my hand, like a weapon. I clamped one end of the nozzle over the flower and tucked the other under the tweed.
BLAM! BLAM!
There. Perfect. Well, not perfect. I held the jacket up once more. Hopefully the CBC’s cameras were not so HD that they would pick up the tiny planks of metal that now held the poppy in place.
I hiked back up to the main floor, throwing the jacket on as I did. Moving to holler upstairs to Grace, I turned to see that she and Naomi were already in the kitchen, waiting for me. My wife leaned against the counter, arms folded over her chest, her bottom lip tucked under her top teeth, her head tilted. Oh, she was mad. I briefly scanned the kitchen for the source of her rage. Surely I hadn’t forgotten to clean up the wreckage of the Bloody Joseph (my third since breakfast): the inedible stump of celery sequestered in the compost, the tin of tomato juice washed out and blue-binned, the celery salt resuming its place in the spice rack, and various other accoutrements returned to their sentry posts in my bar fridge. But no. The kitchen was spotless, as per our agreement.
“Oh, hey,” I ventured. “Look, I’m running late but would you mind —”
“Did you not hear me calling you?”
What was I to say to that?
“I’m pretty sure you did hear me calling you, Philip,” she went on, “because I could hear you shuffling in the hallway outside the bathroom as I did.”
“I wasn’t ’shuffling,’” I said. “I was getting ready for this CBC thing. Look —”
“The tub faucet upstairs still isn’t working right.”
“Yes, it is,” I disagreed, stupidly. I had showered earlier in the day, as had Simone before she’d gone to school. (It wasn’t apparent whether Grace had had her shower yet.) But she was, technically, right — the tub faucet was still plagued with a peculiar problem: the cold water tap would spew piping-hot water for nearly a minute after you turned it on. It was the latest in a series of bathroom issues we’d been having. You’d think that for the ungodly sum I paid for 4 Metcalfe Street six years ago when we got married, we’d have a fully functional bathroom — not to mention a finished basement. But no, no.
“You were supposed to get it fixed,” Grace said, “like, three weeks ago. And now —”
“It’s on my list. You know it’s on my list.”
“And now what I feared would happen — what I knew would happen if you didn’t get it fixed — has happened. Naomi went in there before I realized and turned on the tap and scalded herself.”
“I had to take a pewp,” Naomi informed me with a sniffle, and displayed her reddened right wrist.
I looked at her. “Did, did you poop in the tub, sweetie?”
“She didn’t poop in the tub,” Grace barked. “Philip, you’re missing the point. Did you not hear your daughter scream out and start crying?”
I did. Of course I did. But I knew — or at least assumed — that Grace had things well in hand. Which she did.
My eyes flicked to the wall clock. Jesus.
“Look, what do you want from me?” I tried a half smile. “I fixed the sink up there, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you fixed the sink — after I nagged you about it for five months. What, do you want a medal for that?”
“Grace —”
“I’m serious, Philip. Would you like a prize for fixing the sink? We could write to the French government and get them to create a new international award for plumbing, and give it to you. They could call it the Douche d’Or.”
“You’re hilarious,” I deadpanned, but then chuckled on the inside. She must have been sitting on that joke for weeks.
I shrugged at her. “Look, what can I say? I’m not handy. You know that. This kind of stuff stresses me out, and I have enough stress in my life right now. I’m teaching two courses this term. I’ve got the new book. I’ve got the thesis defence I’m chairing in a few weeks, and …” My eyes floated back to the clock. “I’ve got this CBC thing this afternoon.”
“So you don’t have time to pick up the phone and call a plumber, is what you’re saying.”
“It’s not about calling a plumber, Grace. It’s about having the headspace to figure out if there are any plumbers left in this city who haven’t screwed us over.”
“You weren’t teaching in the summer,” she pointed out. “You could have done it then.”
“Yes, but I had a breakthrough with the book, and …” I pinched my nose, sighed. In that moment, I longed for my old life, before we bought this huge, and hugely expensive, house in Cabbagetown. For sixteen years prior to marrying Grace, I had lived in a loft in the Annex. If the sink broke, the landlord came and fixed it. Which felt like something that only happened in fairy tales, now.
“Look,” I went on, “just because I wasn’t teaching doesn’t mean I had the capacity to deal with …” And yes, I said it then; the words just flew out of me. “… a bunch of domestic trifles.”
“Wow,” she said, long and slow, and blinked at me. “So I guess what you’re saying is it’s really my responsibility, because you’ve got all that,” and here she mock-furrowed her brow at me, “deep thinking to do.”
“Oh, come on, Grace.”
But she took a step toward me then, her backside leaving the counter. In one fluid motion, she jutted her hip out, picked up Naomi, and parked the child upon it. Engaging, she was, in that most basic act of motherwork: to hold her child close. Then Grace threw back her thick, curly hair — sporting a henna dye job she’d acquired a few months ago, one I thoroughly approved of when she first modelled it for me, burying my face in its waves later that night, in bed — and looked at me with those wild, emerald eyes of hers.

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Table Manners

Table Manners

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : canadian

Carnal, flamboyant, visceral and bold, Table Manners is a rich meal. Catriona Wright's debut introduces us to the image of the poet as "gastronaut," a figure who seems to live entirely between table and a stove and who steeps her surroundings and relationships in complex emotional flavours. "My life," she writes, "is now tuned to bone marrow donuts and chef gossip. I'm useless at any other frequency." Wright's wild narratives are sometimes funny, sometimes frightening and always ravishingly obse …

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This Accident of Being Lost

This Accident of Being Lost

Songs and Stories
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

2017 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize Finalist

This Accident of Being Lost is the knife-sharp new collection of stories and songs from award-winning Nishnaabeg storyteller and writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. These visionary pieces build upon Simpson's powerful use of the fragment as a tool for intervention in her critically acclaimed collection Islands of Decolonial Love. Provocateur and poet, she continually rebirths a decolonized reality, one that circles in and out of time and resists …

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Gutenberg’s Fingerprint

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint

Paper, Pixels and the Lasting Impression of Books
edition:Hardcover

An intimate narrative exploring the past, present, and future of books

Four seismic shifts have rocked human communication: the invention of writing, the alphabet, mechanical type and the printing press, and digitization. Poised over this fourth transition, e-reader in one hand, perfect-bound book in the other, Merilyn Simonds — author, literary maven, and early adopter — asks herself: what is lost and what is gained as paper turns to pixel?

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint trolls the past, present, …

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Excerpt

Hugh, Me and the Book

 

The project is Hugh’s idea. He sends me an email: “I hope you can see all the trouble your writing has caused.”

He wants to publish the stories I’ve been calling The Paradise Project. The pieces are slight. Whimsical. I don’t know where they come from, and I don’t ask.

I’m touched that these stories have got their hooks into Hugh, although I don’t quite believe it. I feel like a teenager invited to a party by the most popular boy in class, a boy who can’t possibly like me. I suspect a mistake. Or worse, a trick.

Hugh Barclay introduced himself to me more than a dozen years ago, which sounds very civilized, a calling card on a silver salver. Not the correct impression at all. He showed up at my book launch for The Convict Lover, which took place in the Penitentiary Museum that occupies the old Warden’s House across the road from Kingston Penitentiary, then home to sex offenders and stool pigeons. Canada’s Alcatraz, although the architects clearly forgot that Lake Ontario freezes over in winter, a slippery expressway to the United States for anyone who could scale the high stone walls.

On the day of the launch, the museum is packed. The entire village of Portsmouth has turned out, it seems, and half of Kingston, too. During the eight years of writing The Convict Lover, I was convinced no one would want to read it. The story was too old-fashioned. Too odd. But here I am, standing at a limestone plinth chiselled by convicts, signing book after book, the room crowded with people bursting with stories of their own: the old man who had a convict as a nanny before he went to school (his father was chief keeper); a woman who, as a girl, passed peaches to the convicts as they marched through the village on their way to the quarry to break stone. The lineup is so long and discombobulating that when my sister hands me her book, I pause over the page, simulating a cough, as I try to remember her name.

I notice Hugh right away. Or rather, I notice his black beret. He’s short—something peculiar about the curve of his spine—but his rakish beret keeps bobbing into view until it is right beside me.

“Here!” he says, shoving a green bookmark under my nose. “I’m Hugh Barclay! This is my wife, Verla!” The man doesn’t speak, he proclaims.

“We made this!” Hugh taps the length of thick paper. It is the colour of mashed peas. “We have a printing press. Thee Hellbox Press.”

I make noises of gratitude and prepare to add the bookmark to the stack of photos and mementoes others have given me.

“You see. You see,” he says, tugging the bookmark back to the centre of the plinth, tapping it more insistently now. “You see? The C and T at the end of ‘Convict’? The bit that connects them? That’s called a ligature. We chose the type especially. It’s like the letters are handcuffed together.”

He is chuckling. So is Verla. They both stare up at me, delighted. Expectant. I look again, more intently, at the bookmark.

Verla’s wheelchair has cleared a space like a stage around the three of us. The room and the milling crowd fall away, and it is just the three of us, gazing down at this unexpected chunk of raw, ragged paper, visibly dented with words, letters joined by a curving line defined by a term I’ve never heard before.

“Amazing,” I say. And before I know it, I’m chuckling, too.

 

Hugh is a fixture about town. His beret, tilted at a dapper angle, can be seen at every literary gathering: book launches, readings, festival performances. He’s almost always pushing Verla’s chair. And then he isn’t.

Hugh is not young, although I can’t guess his age. Over sixty. Under eighty. His body is misshapen, as if wracked by some extended, torturing condition, yet there is something child-like about his face. Not innocence: the wisdom in his eyes is hard-earned. Delight, yes. Wonder, perhaps. Optimism, for sure. It’s his enthusiasm, I decide, that makes him seem so young. A frank and forthright zeal that cares nothing for propriety or convention, the accepted rules of adult intercourse.

I find myself watching for him at public events, edging over for a chat, craving a shot of his fervour, his wit unstained by irony, unmarred by the faintest glint of condescension or cruelty.

“You know, don’t you, that you haven’t really made it until you’ve been published by Thee Hellbox Press,” he says to me at a gathering of the Kingston Arts & Letters Club. My husband, Wayne, and I have just presented a talk on the art of collaboration, based on our experience writing a travel memoir together, Breakfast at the Exit Café.

“You should send me something,” Hugh says.

“I don’t have anything.” It’s a bit of a lie. I’m not a prolific writer, and it’s true that I don’t have stacks of unpublished manuscripts stuffed in a bottom drawer. But I do have a thin pile of stories, stories I can’t yet imagine releasing to the world.

 

The Convict Lover was my first literary book. Over the next fifteen years, I launched six more: a book of stories, a novel, a travel memoir, a book of essays, two anthologies. When Hugh sent me that email calling me a troublemaker, I was working on another novel, a long, slow exploration of solitude and refuge. From time to time, as I wrote the novel, bizarre short fictions would flash onto the page. The same thing happened when I wrote The Convict Lover, stories that I eventually gathered up and published as The Lion in the Room Next Door.

These new stories are different. Shorter. Stranger. Leftovers, of a sort. Like remnants of a dream that interrupts my consciousness long after I stir awake. For years, I had been writing about my garden. Not just my garden: gardens. My novel The Holding began as an exploration of the nature of control and the control of nature. When Alyson and Margaret work their plots, are they trying to make nature do what they want, or are they trying to sidle up closer to it, bring it into their too-concrete lives? A New Leaf carried on that conversation within the borders of my own gardens at The Leaf, the patch of woods and cleared land where we lived in Eastern Ontario. It was a gardener, I came to realize, who changed the course of human history, plucking a seed and planting it where she wanted it to grow instead of where it randomly fell. A gardener who made farming possible, and cities, and trips to the moon.

Neither the novel nor the essays contained anything like the lyric fantasies that were erupting now. I had never written anything like them. When I was writer-in-residence at the University of British Columbia, I tacked a few to the end of a reading.

“I don’t know what these are,” I said by way of introduction.

“They’re poems,” a friend said afterwards. She is a poet and a teacher; she brought her entire class to the reading. The students vigorously nodded their heads.

“They can’t be poems,” I protested. “I’m not a poet.”

Some were clearly stories—very short stories of a few hundred words or less. Others were lyrical: sixteen words, three lines, a single sentence that trailed down one page and onto a second.

I called them flash fictions and titled each one for an element in a garden—stone, leaf, petal, vine.

“Stone” was the first. It came out whole, each of its 265 words irrevocably attached to the next in ways I could not unlock, could only separate with commas, hitching a clump together here and there, setting a few on a line all their own.

A friend who was an editor at the Antigonish Review published “Stone” and a selection of others. More were collected in a special Canadian edition of Literature and Arts of the Americas. Both journals were sufficiently distant from me geographically that if critics threw rotten tomatoes, I wasn’t likely to know. I needn’t have worried: the reviews were kind. Maybe there was something in these stories after all. My youngest son, Erik, is a book designer, and we’d been tossing around the idea of self-publishing some of my out-of-print work as ebooks—and maybe these stories, too. When Queen’s Quarterly, the magazine of the local university, asked if I had anything they might publish, I emailed a selection of the flash fictions and, in a fit of confidence, copied them to Hugh.

It was a whim. An act of sharing, one literary weirdo to another. I have pressed Send a thousand, a million times. How was I to know that this time it would change my life?

 

TESTING, TESTING

 

“This should definitely be in a book,” Hugh says when I finally give in to his urging to visit him at his print shop.

Without saying a word to me, he has set the type for “Stone.”

“Super stuff,” he’d said in response to my email with the poem/story. “It starts movies running in my mind and takes me back to my childhood spent exploring stone hedgerow fences, expecting to find some great treasure hidden in a crevasse.”

The test proof he hands me is beautiful. Dark red ink on paper so creamy and thick it might be birchbark or a peeling of sandstone. I run my fingers over it, feel the physical texture of my words pressed into the page. I’m used to the feel of them in my mouth, invisible objects that force my lips into taut circles, a flattened gap, my tongue pressing up against my palate, stroking the inside of my teeth, humping at the back of my throat. But never this.

Hugh has given my words substance.

He takes the page from me and holds it flat, at eye level. Instead of reading the words, I look across the terrain of paper, shaped now into hills and valleys, pools of commas, fjords of t’s and f’s, rushing rivulets of s’s.

“Words make an impression,” he says.

 

Hugh’s print shop is attached to his house—almost. The house itself was designed and built specifically for Hugh and Verla, with wheelchair access and a courtyard plan that has every room opening through a large doorway to a central hall. The building that houses the print shop looks like a garage jutting towards the street, connected to the house by a wooden deck.

The shop is a mess. Hugh ushers me in past a counter heaped with paper. The walls are plastered with print projects. One shows a bank of words—Saffron. Fireflies. Baffle. Truffle—the lowercase f’s in scarlet ink. When I ask what this means, Hugh gets a little irritated.

“Mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a gorgeous ligature.”

There’s a block print of a dancing figure, various quotes, some handwritten, some set in type: Fragile as I am, I am strong.

I’m a quick study. I don’t ask where the quotes are from.

Once, this shop was hung was prosthetic body parts. Back then, Hugh was into orthotics. He was also writing poetry. In the early 1970s, he met a man named Bill Poole who taught at the Ontario College of Art. He sent Bill his first poem.

“Bill got back to me and said, ‘I solved your problem.’ I didn’t know I had a problem. ‘I bought a press so now I can publish your poem,’ he said. I told him I’d rather do a book.”

A New Respect, Hugh’s one and only book of poems was published by Poole Hall Press in 1972. He helped set the type and run the press.

“That’s how I got ink in my veins,” he says. He means it metaphorically, but it strikes me as literally true. I imagine the watershed of his body flowing red, yellow, blue. His fingers are perpetually smudged as if ink is leaking out through his skin.

Through the next couple of years, he and Bill produced a magazine called Symbiosis.

“People could only pay in kind, and we refused to say what it was worth.” Hugh is chuckling again. He seems to be perpetually chuckling, as if life is one big joke. A joke on him. A joke on all of us.

“We had fifty to seventy-five subscribers. We got sent wine, hand-knit mitts and socks. A woman in Newfoundland sent us cod and brewis. One fellow wrote a song about us, ‘The Press Gang Blues.’”

As he talks, I lean to look into the other room. The print shop is divided in two: the back room where Hugh does his typesetting and printing and this other room, which is tidier—one long table stacked with various sizes and colours of paper, each in its own neat pile.

Hugh is tapping the test proof of “Stone.”

“This should be a book,” he says.

I came to Hugh’s shop intending to dampen his fire, but I find myself nodding as if what he says makes perfect sense. Yes, these stories should be between covers. When there are enough, my saner brain says. When I hone them to something I understand.

“I mean now.”

“But I only have a dozen.” Printed on paper, the book would be so thin it would hardly qualify for the name.

“That’s plenty! It will be a handmade book.”

I imagine readers paying for the book with macramé hangers, out-of-date pesos, their children’s first drawings.

My saner brain tells me I should be appalled. I barely hear it for the chuckling.

 

STUPID HUGH

 

Hugh asks to see all the stories, and I send him everything: those that have been published, new pieces, unfinished fragments.

“I’ve just sat down and read the manuscript and it is amazing. A lot of new pieces, at least to me. Some brought a tear to my eye, but you need to know that my bladder is too close to my eyes.”

We agree to meet for dinner to discuss the book.

To my alarm, almost as soon as I sit down, Hugh bursts into tears. We are sitting in the city’s finest restaurant, a favourite, we discovered, of us both. The owner, Zal Yanovsky, was lead guitarist in the Lovin’ Spoonful, a ’60s band I danced to (on tabletops, if I remember correctly). The first time I met Zalman he was on roller skates, scooting around his dinner guests, stopping at my side to ask if I had a cigarette.

“Do I look like a smoker?” I laughed. I was being taken to dinner by James Lawrence, founder, publisher, and editor of Harrowsmith magazine, the back-to-the-land bible of the 1980s, a magazine that was about to get into book publishing. They wanted me to write their first book. None of them smoked anything but weed. I wanted to make a good impression—my Du Mauriers were well hidden—but Zal had sussed me out. I opened my purse and offered him a fag, tossing smiles around the table in penance. Who can resist a man on roller skates?

Now Zalman is dead and Hugh is crying and we are at the worst table in the restaurant, the one in the middle of the room, where every waiter and diner has to pass us by to get in, or out, or serve a dish of Mediterranean stew. We might as well be onstage.

I lean close to Hugh and put my hand on his arm. “You okay?”

He has been telling me about the school children. Immediately after he published his first book of poems, he went out and bought a letterpress. It was a whim, he says.

Hugh, I am about to discover, is a great follower of whims. He set up the press at his daughters’ elementary school and worked with students to print their own magazine.

“Those kids! They wrote the stories. They set the type. They did it all!”

He dabs at his eyes with a flowered serviette.

“Don’t worry,” he says, picking up his fork to attack his stew. “Stupid Hugh cries a lot.”

Stupid Hugh has all the bad habits. He forgets the comma in the first line of type and doesn’t notice until the whole page is set. He prints the wrong text over an image. He leaves his fingerprints behind. Until I met Hugh, I didn’t realize that I, too, have an incompetent, wastrel twin. Stupid Merilyn was the one handing out cigarettes and dancing on tables. These days, she spends most of her time inserting misplaced modifiers and splitting infinitives in my carefully composed text.

When Hugh points out a mistake in one of the stories, I know exactly what to say.

“Sorry, Hugh. You’ll have to forgive her. Stupid Merilyn never learned to spell.”

Both Merilyn and Stupid Merilyn have a lot to learn. Hugh will be our teacher. Over the next year, he will rock our world, upend everything we think we know about writing, about paper, words, ink, and presses, and how they come together to make a book.

 

A PAPER WORLD

 

My sons and I belong to the last two generations to grow up in an entirely paper world. The first words we read were pressed into paper. By the time I was thirty, I was writing on a computer; by the time my sons were adolescents, most of what they read was onscreen. But our first books, both theirs and mine, were printed much as Johannes Gutenberg printed books six centuries before.

When Hugh proposed publishing The Paradise Project, the process he had in mind would have been entirely familiar to Gutenberg: hand-set type impressed on handmade paper with a hand-operated press.

Meanwhile, Erik and I were discussing the production of the same manuscript as an ebook. His daughters were learning to read onscreen. The novels by my bed, as often as not, were ebooks.

We’re caught in a paradigm shift. Words are the constant, with paper on one shore, pixels on the other. My sons and I stand in the middle, a foot balanced on either side. My parents would never have believed that a world without paper was possible. My grandchildren will never fully grasp the extent to which paper served us all we wanted and needed to know. I have walled every room in my house with books; my granddaughters can hold more books than that in just one hand.

 

“So,” says Hugh, embracing his print shop with outstretched arms. “Will we do this?”

I feel as if I am being invited to enter Doctor Who’s TARDIS. I know what will happen if I refuse: my life will go on pretty much as it has—writing, reading, observing the world from the sidelines, surrounded by what I know.

Stepping inside Hugh’s world will change everything.

“Sure,” I say, not understanding a thing. “Why not?”

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