The Book

Imagining Toronto book cover

Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, fall 2010) is available at most bookstores and online through Mansfield Press, Amazon or Chapters.

Imagining Toronto was shortlisted for the 2010 Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian literary criticism and won the Award of Merit, the highest honour given to a book at the 2011 Heritage Toronto Awards.

Upcoming Events

25-26 February 2012: "Going Native: Reclaiming Aboriginal Identity in Toronto Literature," “Landscapes of Difference, Espaces de Difference, Raume der Differenz” conference (Session: The Politcs of Place: Urban Sites of Contestation), Canadian Studies Association in German-speaking countries (GKS). Grainau, Germany.

Thursday 15 March 2012: Guest lecture, "The Imagined City," ARC 120, Contemporary Architecture. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, University of Toronto; Isabel Bader Theatre, 9:45-11:00 am.

Wednesday 4 April 2012: "Representing Toronto: Mapping the Role of the Artist in the Contemporary City. Panel discussion. Presented by Koffler Gallery in partnership with Diaspora Dialogues. 80 Spadina Ave., Suite 503; 7:00 pm.

Sunday 22 April 2012: Reading from Acts of Salvage at the Draft Reading Series. Details TBA.

Thursday 3 May 2012: "Literary Bodies." Panel discussion as part of Bodies in the City, a symposium of the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto.

Thursday 17 May 2012: "Imagining Toronto the Wild" at the Toronto Botanical Garden. Inaugural lecture of the TBG's new HortiCULTURE salon series.

Recent Events

Tuesday 18 October 2011, 7:00-8:30 pm: Will the Real Cabbagetown Please Stand Up?: Regent Park, St. Jamestown and Cabbagetown in the Literary Imagination. Parliament Branch (269 Gerrard St. E.)

Saturday 1 October 2011, 2:00-3:30 pm: The Masseys and the Masses: Social and Spatial Ascendency in Rosedale and Forest Hill. Forest Hill Branch (700 Eglinton Ave. W.)

Tuesday 27 September 2011, 7:00-8:30 pm: From Streetcar Suburb to Multicultural Community: Riverdale in the Literary Imagination. Riverdale Branch, Toronto Public Library (370 Broadview Ave.)

Click here for past events.

Minding the Word Hoard

In “Five Visits to the Word Hoard,” an essay published in Writing Life,[1] Margaret Atwood borrows terminology from Anglo-Saxon poetry to pay homage to the sources of inspiration writers rely on throughout their creative lives. “”The word hoard,”” she writes, “is what they called their well of inspiration, which overlapped with the language itself; and “hoard” signified “treasure.” A treasure is kept in a secret, guarded place, and words were seen as a mysterious treasure: they were to be valued.”

Words are, of course, ultimately difficult to distinguish from their containers, a point Anglo-Saxon scholars make whenever discussing the etymological and cultural significance of the wordhord. Literary scholar Britt Mize,[2] for example, argues that wordhord extends beyond the mental well into the corporeal, cultural–and perhaps even architectural–domains:

A wordhord is not merely a ‘collection of words’ in the modern sense […] but the discursive treasury–a container full of that which may be said, or thoughts–that its possessor can onlucan ‘unlock’ in the act of speech.

In this way, then, a word hoard is found not only a literary lexicon, or the store of ideas–overheard conversations, borrowed memories, accumulated images and cultural artifacts–writers rely on, but also extends to the physical places those ideas are contained. As such, books, bookcases, libraries and archives are also part of the word hoard.

What happens, then, when we lose control of the word hoard; when instead of being a treasure it inundates everything around it, threatening to drown the unwary in an unmanageable volume of words?

When I was in a graduate program a decade or so ago,  my supervisor warned me against doing too much reading. “Analysis paralysis” was what he called the state researchers find themselves mired in when they have too many sources and too many ideas to keep track of. Another academic colleague told me she would write down ideas that did not seem to fit with one project and lock them in a desk drawer. In her view the greatest challenge any academic faces is knowing when to stop thinking–and to stop reading–and start writing.

Lately I have been thinking quite extensively about hoarding–and literary hoarding in particular–because I am working on a long story about hoarders, dumpster divers, bottle collectors and urban scavengers. And coincidentally, while reading Alissa York’s excellent Toronto novel Fauna (Random House, 2010), I came across a protagonist whose mother had hoarded books:

To begin with, Letty kept her books on shelves like anyone else. On weekends Edal trailed after her through the auction barn or napped fretfully in the passenger seat while Letty trolled the yard sales for “proper wood.” By the time she turned eight, her mother had burned through the small savings Nana and Grandpa Adam had left behind, and even a set of used veneer shelves had become a luxury. Letty still slowed for every hand-painted roadside sign, but now all her pennies went on books. [….] Not long after she lost her helper, Letty stopped constructing shelves. The books stood in piles then–Historic Hairstyles of the World, A Guide to Grouting, The Good Earth. Edal grew accustomed to clearing a space when she wanted to open the fridge, or run a bath, or watch one of two stations that came in striped and blurry on their rabbit-eared TV. One afternoon she came upon a Canadian Club box full of Trixie Belden mysteries sitting on the stovetop, directly over the pilot light. I only set them there for a second, Edal. I was coming right back.

I am reminded, too, by Books on Books blogger Nathalie Foy that a book hoarder figures prominently in Martha Baillie‘s Toronto novel The Incident Report (Pedlar Press, 2009). Baillie’s narrator (a librarian, oddly or conveniently enough) is the daughter of a man who hoarded books:

My father did not read the books he collected. Whereas many men drink, he eased his anguish by purchasing books. He imagined that his collection might one day acquire an immense value. Not that he planned to sell his books. [….] Musty volumes stood in piles on the stairs going up to our second floor; they formed a low wall leading to the washroom. Neither the shelves in my parents’ bedroom nor those in the living room could contain all my father’s books. His collection filled the garage. The car remained parked in the driveway, in every season, no matter the weather. My mother prohibited him from bringing home more books. He hid them under his coat or he waited until she was out of the house.

I read passages like these with a certain discomfort because I also have a tendency to hoard books, and it is only a parallel preference for order that keeps the worst symptoms of this compulsion in check.

Books–and bookstores especially–give me a physical high, and I have an addict’s response whenever I am unable to spend most of the time among books. A kind of withdrawal, an internal itch very similar to the one that manifests in my hands whenever I lack the time or space to write. As a child I ran a library–the “Read Alot Library”–out of my bedroom, and inventoried my childhood collection of 200 books in order to make them available for lending. In elementary school my classmates derided me for my ambition (one I am not sure whether I ever expressed or if it was simply imposed upon me) to become a librarian. In my late teens I thought it would be wonderful to amass a complete library consisting of every book (or, later, every Canadian book) ever published and, in my twenties, read with envy a newspaper article about a Canadian university professor whose private library reportedly extended to 25,000 volumes.

But by the time I was twenty-five or so my attraction to books had become slightly more measured. As a graduate student I realised the absurdity of having too many books to find the one needed most urgently. At some point I began to cull a collection of books that had begun to overwhelm my 560 square foot apartment, and although when I met my husband my dowry consisted of nearly 100 boxes of books, it was a smaller collection (around three thousand books) than it had been even a year or two earlier.

I am not sure how many books we have now; perhaps six thousand volumes, hopefully slightly fewer. Since beginning the Imagining Toronto project I have added easily a thousand Toronto-focused books, although at the same time I have culled several hundred novels and poetry anthologies and scholarly books that could no longer justify their keep.

When we cull books they usually end up in boxes on the sidewalk in front of the house, where they are pored and picked over and disappear rapidly. At some point someone appears in an old car and makes away with the rest, which (presumably) end up in a cluttered bookshop or private library.

But I wonder: what is it about the comfort of books that people will endure the clutter and physical discomfort to amass them? For me, collecting books is a compulsion born of curiosity and greed. I am not a good library patron, as I do not often return books on time; as a result it is easier to have them permanently. And as a researcher I like to have my sources close at hand, pages marked (Post-its only; I rarely write in the margins anymore) for easy reference. On a more visceral level I like to have books around me because they are comforting to look at, to smell and touch. They are imprinted on my soul so deeply that when I visit a house without books it seems somehow empty, incompletely furnished.

I know many bibliophiles with large private libraries; also writers with startlingly small collections of books. Pierre Berton reportedly kept his own library to a mere 1500 volumes, a size I find stiflingly small.

But it is easy for a collection to grow too large to be manageable, and the point when this occurs is almost never known until long after the fact. It is possible to wedge books atop other books lined up on the shelves, to double the rows, to create piles on the floor nearby. To stack books along the wall until, in the end, all that is left is a narrow passageway between books. To accumulate so many books that all that is left is to clamber over them.

This was the state I reached while finishing the Imagining Toronto book. My tiny office long since overwhelmed, I moved my laptop to the third floor and begun stacking books on the surfaces around it. For the last several months of writing I would spend up to an hour every few days searching for a book I knew was somewhere in one of those piles, an act guaranteed to produce a seething rage that ruined any prospect of meaningful progress for the rest of the day.

When the book was done, the first thing I did was clear those piles of books. Somehow I managed to fit almost everything (including hundreds of volumes picked up during the process of writing) back into my office. And since then I have redoubled my efforts to cull unwanted books from our collection. Every few days I spend an hour or two poring over the shelves and digging out books to give away. And as much as I love books, the result is a tremendous relief, because the only thing more aesthetically pleasing than a row of books is room for movement and the generation of new ideas.

In this light, it has not seemed a coincidence that I began to make real progress on my long story about hoarders, scavengers and urban outsiders only when my own word hoard had been cleared away.

[Image: Book hoarder gargoyle, available at Gargoyle Statuary.]

Amy Lavender Harris is the author of Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010).

  1. [1] Writing Life: Celebrated Canadian and International Authors on Writing and Life, ed. Constance Rooke, 10-23. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
  2. [2]“The representation of the mind as an enclosure in Old English poetry,” in Anglo-Saxon England, Vol. 35: 57-90.

3 comments to Minding the Word Hoard

  • I love this post. I, too, get a physical high from being in a book store, as well as withdrawl symptoms if I’ve been away too long. I even keep all my books on the third floor of my house where I write and read, because I like to keep them close to me. I’m working my way through my TBR list until April, when the TBR bet expires and I can buy books again. It’s only the deep satisfaction of reading like a maniac through my high piles of hoarded books that keeps me going. A friend gave me a button to put in my wallet: “I am not to be trusted in a bookstore with a credit card.”

  • “I am not to be trusted in a bookstore with a credit card:” so true for me too. I can’t imagine forgoing book-buying for months at a time (TBR list notwithstanding) but have severely curtailed my own book-accumulating since finishing the Imagining Toronto book.

    I spent the better part of a day last week reading your blog and vicariously desiring so many of the books you discuss. One thing I was wondering about, though: must a person read, or intend to read, all the books she owns? I have quite a few books (European classics in particular and also some CanLit) that I do not intend ever to read, but keep for reference (it is often useful to look up passages) or for my daughter, who is not yet a reader. I’ve also found that one grows into / out of books over years, and it’s often useful to have them available when they start to make sense.

    P.S. Such a pleasure to meet you the other evening: Hope we’ll have a chance to chat properly soon! Tea, maybe?

  • Ahhh yes…. reading this post filled me with guilty understanding. I can never fully relax unless my books are with me, near me and in plain site. When I move out, they are the very last things to get packed away. When I move in, they are the very first things to get unpacked. Even before my bed or computer. I must be be able to see my books and touch them and look up from my unpacking to enjoy the visual knowledge of their presence. They provide an unmeasurable degree of mental and emotional comfort. I am never fully “home” unless my books are with me. They give a certain sense of peace. They understand me, I them. We’ve shared many important moments together. I`ve spent time with them, memories and associations are made within the pages which are deeply intertwined with special or even mundane moments in my life. Occassionally when I may by chance open a page with some footnotes or “notes to self” which I had written years ago…. it brings me right back to that time… that day… that very minute. They serve as time capsules in a way. I have a list in my head of the books I`d save if I only had a few minutes to do so… in a fire for example. Terrible, I know. Who keeps such lists? Most would save the more traditional “valuables.” For me, my books and I share a connection rooted in memories and experiences that even photo albums do not possess. I understand how dangerous it can be to let loose someone like us in a bookstore. How innocent it may seem to anyone else… but to us… well… perhaps we should all wear Nathalie’s buttons.

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