Reading it Forward

Sometimes I stare at my growing To-Be-Read stack and wonder how many books it would take to break a 3/4″ wooden shelf. I fear that I might wake up one night to the crashing sound of dust — that one speck that breaks the threshold of my shelf’s resistive strength and causes the entire mass of my TBR library to fold into itself, crushing my centuries-old collection of Robbie Burns poetry into a mound of ash.

Every so often, I try to mitigate this pending literary disaster by brushing off the dust and wading into the stack, waiting for a book to call me — or bite me. More often than not, I heed bite marks and embrace a book that I’ve always thought I should read, even if I’ve never wanted to. And more often than not, I’m grateful for the bite marks; glad that a story I may never have chosen picked me.

Many of the books on my shelf are by authors I’ve met. Even as a relatively new and unknown writer living in small-town BC, it seems that my network of fellow authors — and with it the stack of books-by-authors-I-know — grows exponentially. I want to read every one of those books — even the ones I don’t want to read. And I also want to read every one of the books-from-authors-I-don’t-know that are co-plotting to destroy my shelf: the I-thought-of-you-when-I-saw-this gifts from family; the I-thought-of-you-when-I-read-this loaners from friends; the I’ve-always-wanted-to-read-this classics that begged me to adopt them from second-hand bookstores; the this-might-help-my-chances-at-trivia-night tomes filled with facts, figures and obscure historical references; and the I-definitely-judged-this-book-by-its-cover novels that won me over based on the “shiny object” principle.

But I digress.

Full Bookshelf
A remarkably dust-free and borderline organized version of my TBR shelf.

The books that bite the hardest are by the authors I know — most of whom, it seems, are much faster readers than I am. Those books start like docile puppies, batting their covers at me from the top of the stack to read them at my earliest convenience. But as they become crowded by newer, less dusty titles, they become antsy. And as they are slowly suffocated by the combined weight of books and dust and shame (mine, of course), they get desperate. From time to time, I hear a mystery thriller yelling out in shock … a speculative fiction tale calling out dire warnings about the downfall of capitalism … or a lonely memoir pleading, “Read me!” … urging me to extract it from bookshelf purgatory before I run into its author in the SuperValu bagel section — again — where I’ll be forced to admit — again — that I still haven’t found the time to read her book. Never mind that the author-I-know-who-also-buys-bagels-from-SuperValu has already read both of my books, liked 347 of my Facebook posts, and provided me with glowing reviews on Amazon, Chapters-Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Goodreads (all in the name of “helping a fellow writer build their author platform”).

As you might have already guessed, I’m not about to win any speed-reading competitions. So when someone actually asks me to read their book — especially to review it before publication — I break into a sweat, envisioning the moment when I’ll run into that author in the light bulb aisle of Home Hardware — again — and have to admit — again — that I still haven’t fulfilled my commitment. And even though the book-that-I-was-supposed-to-read will have already sold hundreds of copies and been long-listed for seven awards by the time I get through the Prologue, I will feel great shame at my failure to add the weight of my name — Mark Cameron, two-time self-published author and frequent bagel shopper in Gibsons, BC — to the back cover of said book. But my prognostication of future shame does not stop me from saying, “Uh, sure … of course,” because I’m honoured to be asked (and because “No” is so much harder to say). And truth be told, I am so horrified by such author run-ins that I am more likely to set aside eating and sleeping than I am to fall short of an advance reader commitment. Such are the sacrifices of being an active member of the writing community!

But I digress again.

You can imagine how I, a glacial reader with a huge guilt complex and a penchant for bagels, might find it hard to ask other authors to review my work. It’s hard enough to ask people I know, but the thought of asking a two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour (whose closest tie to me was being a friend-of-a-friend on Facebook) to review my forthcoming romantic comedy novel felt a bit like asking the pope to review my sermon. (Not that I write sermons, but if I did …)

Yes, I digress yet again.

I greatly appreciate each of the advance reviews that I received for 17 Weddings: from fellow Sunshine Coast resident and writing mentor, PJ Reece, to last year’s winner of the Whistler Independent Book Award for non-fiction, Paul Shore, to the arts columnist of The Coast Reporter, Rik Jesperson. I am thankful to each of them for taking the time to read and review my book. And I am glad that each of those relationships has the potential for reciprocal value. PJ and I often compare notes, and we push each other to become better authors. Paul and I, since meeting at the Whistler Writer’s Festival last year, have also met a few times to discuss writing and publishing and life. And although it’s more difficult to provide value to Rik, I can at least continue to provide him with books to review.

I was selective about advance readers, approaching only a few people who I thought would see 17 Weddings as a good fit with their writing styles. I was not surprised that a couple of well-known-to-the-world-but-strangers-to-me authors did not reply to my literary “Hail Mary” requests. But when one of three “A-list” authors whom I approached, Terry Fallis, agreed to look at my book … then actually read and reviewed it — despite juggling a full-time workload and a publishing deadline of his own — I was reminded of this famous quote:

“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” — Malcolm S. Forbes.

Perhaps one day I can repay Terry for providing me with a wonderful review and some well-timed words of encouragement. But it is more likely that I will have to “pay it forward” and pass on the good karma that Terry sent my way when he e-mailed the following blurb to me:

“In his sophomore novel, Mark Cameron takes us on a wild ride infused with humour and heart. A moving story about love and regret and friendship, 17 Weddings kept me turning the pages. I didn’t want it to end, and I was sad when it did.” — Terry Fallis

I hope to one day mentor writers like PJ Reece does, or to see one of my books win an award like Paul Shore’s Uncorked: My Year in Provence. And if the stars align just right, perhaps one of my novels will take flight like The Best Laid Plans did for Terry Fallis ten years ago, launching him toward recognition as a titan of Canadian literature. If this happens, I will be prepared to approach my good fortune with the grace and humility that Terry showed me, adding whatever weight I can to support other up-and-coming authors.

I’d better sign up for a speed-reading course, just in case.

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