Books, books, books! - and some thoughts on art and labels

I took a big risk in packing for this tour: I only brought one book. 

Now, I thought I was being careful, since it was 500 pages long and we had concerts to play and new places to see and blog posts and daily journal entries to write. But I miscalculated, and by day six of the tour found myself in need of something new to read. 

So, on our last day in Sudbury, I dragged Ben, Arie, and Jonathan to a used book store downtown. It wasn’t hard – we’re all readers, and there was also a promise of coffee and a swim afterwards. Once we arrived, I immediately lost track of the other three and struck out on my own. Bay Used Books is divided up into sections by genre, and I found the category labels to be fascinating reading. Immediately visible from the front of the store were the shelves labeled “romance,” “historical romance,” “historical fiction: British,” “historical fiction: non-British,” and a large but un-labeled section that I would categorize as “general life improvement,” containing cookbooks, self-help, parenting, pop psychology, and a smattering of mysticism. Towards the back was a room devoted to “award-winning fiction,” with a wall devoted to Canadian authors; I closeted myself there for a while and emerged with an armful of books but also a few frustrations. I had found many English translations of Gabrielle Roy’s novels but nothing in the original French, and absolutely nothing by L. M. Montgomery (I don’t need any more Anne books, but their presence is how I determine my overall approval of any bookstore). So I headed downstairs, where I knew there were more books to be found. On the way to the staircase, I saw a door with the enticing declaration, “More books behind this door!!” – somewhat disappointingly, it was not bookworm-Narnia but just a supply closet with some unshelved books on World War I and the British royal family. 

The basement, fittingly enough, housed horror, mystery, science fiction, and something cryptically labeled “light mystery.” This is also where the children’s section was located, as well as the French-language corner. They were both jumbled and not really alphabetized, so I had to do some digging; the children/teen section wasn’t even separated out by reading level, so I had to wade through picture books and several fantasy series to find Anne (who was, thankfully, there after all). I eventually found the untranslated Gabrielle Roy book I was looking for and so we were free to continue on our way for coffee and a swim in Ramsey Lake. 

Two days later, I unexpectedly thought of the genre signs at Bay Used Books. We stopped for lunch in Blind River, one of the title towns in Algoma Miniatures, and found our way to the Butterfly Grill, a food truck boasting local delicacies such as fresh pickerel and chips and deep-fried dill pickles. We had our instruments with us because instruments don’t like being left in the car, so naturally the food truck owner struck up a conversation with us. He wanted to know what kind of music we played and we told him “contemporary classical with a little folk thrown in.” His response was, “I love classical music! I saw Mumford & Sons in Scotland a few years ago.” Now, not too long ago, I probably would have come up with some snotty response about what is and isn’t classical music (despite the fact that I also love Mumford & Sons, think they write and perform great songs, and would love the chance to see them live, I would definitely not consider them classical artists). But the variety of types of organization at Bay Used Books got me to think about specificity of genre differently. If I were running a bookstore, I would probably keep British historical fiction and non-British historical fiction together, and I probably would separate children’s books based on reading level, and I would definitely not separate “light mystery” from full-fat mystery. But  I impose categories on music that I’m sure would seem artificial to this food truck owner – minimalism, contemporary music, chamber music, romantic music, German baroque, and Mumford & Sons all fit under his “classical” heading – while not making any differentiation in my personal metric between, say, death metal and speed metal and sludge metal. That kind of boundary flexibility has been one of the most enjoyable things about sharing “Lost Islands” with a variety of audiences. Whether people come in because of the newly composed classical music, the poetry, the fiddle tunes, or because they know one of us onstage, they seem to be able leave labels at the door and enjoy everything on the program. I think this is partly a testament to the success of our programming, and to the individual artistic merit of each component of the program (and the artistry of the people presenting them – what a privilege it has been to play alongside these musicians and actors night after night!), but mostly it’s proof that our audiences need labels a lot less than we think they do – and a lot less than they think they do. Worthwhile art is about making genuine connections with people regardless of what you or they call it, and the diversity of people who have been moved by our performances or even just our jamming outside a food truck is proof of that.


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