From Lost for Words, Edward St. Aubyn’s hilarious satirical novel about literary prizegiving:
“In England, art was much less likely to be mentioned in polite society than sexual perversions or methods of torture; the word ‘elitist’ could be spat out with the same confident contempt as ‘coward’ at a court martial. It seemed as if prejudice could not be banished without driving some other topic, once freely discussed, or even admired, into a shameful exile. Perhaps in future generations a law would be passed allowing consenting adults to practice art openly; an Intellect Relations Board might be set up to encourage tolerance towards people who, through no fault of their own, were interested in ideas. Meanwhile, it was just as well to keep quiet and play the fool.”
The Question of Curation:
I had thought of posting the above on the bookstore website, but wondered if its inherent elitism might offend. Oh how careful we are not to give offense, in these very righteous post-Ghomeshi days.
But not so long ago, an old friend dropped by the bookstore, and at lunch at Boxwood afterward, she said, “ so, after four years in the book business, do you still believe in democracy?” I laughed, and dismissed her question. After all, at Shelf Life, we curate our books. We carefully select high quality writing and we bring in very little genre fiction. We don’t stock bestsellers. Our children’s shelves display no licenced TV or Disney cartoon characters. Once, Karlene (our genius assistant manager) brought in some Disney Golden Books, more as a retro thing – but the minute I saw those stylized figures on our shelves, I just thought it looked wrong, somehow. And we chose not to re-order.
But my friend’s question got me thinking about curation and the democracy of choice. And then the Fall Fundraiser Campaign began on the listener-supported radio station to which my stereo is tuned day and night (yes, apparently I am a type –“the public-radio-listening, Subaru-driving locals” mentioned in a recent New York Times Magazine article about singer songwriter Teddy Thompson). I have already learned to turn off the radio during the week of the fundraiser, just because I get tired of hearing my favourite announcers asking for money instead of playing music (and yes, after many years of riding for free I am now in my dotage a faithful, regular, and generous donor). Once I figured the campaign was over, I switched the radio back on.
And man, was CKUA ever boring. At first it was a bit of a kick to hear my old favourites – “No Woman No Cry” or “Roxanne” or “Tupelo Honey” – but it got very tired very quickly and I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t playing anything interesting on CKUA anymore. And then it clicked: for a week or so after the fundraiser, they are dutifully playing the backlog of listener requests made by donors. And then, after that’s done and we’re all bored silly, they can go back to doing what they’re good at – introducing listeners to what’s actually good – what’s new, what’s worth revisiting, what’s worth exploring. Curation, in short. I’ll tell you, letting listeners decide what’s on the radio is like letting inmates run the asylum. Have you ever listened to Top 40 Radio? I rest my case.
So, after four years in the business of selling cultural products, do I still believe in democracy? Well, yes…..if it’s well curated.