Do you read pamphlets?

(An overview of the Field Notes from Biblioasis)

A while ago I’ve read an article in The Walrus: it was about an independent publisher and bookstore in Windsor, Ontario. Biblioasis. I want to write about their books, but first I need to tell how I got there. Or here.

I have to confess I didn’t know too much about the landscape of the small(er) independent publishers or book stores. In both places where I lived and live presently since we moved back from the prairies – in former villages, small towns swallowed by “greater” Hamilton –  there are small used bookstores that I liked to visit. But that’s all. Not that I knew much more about the Big Publishers. I just wasn’t interested enough. When I left the Old World over a quarter century ago I’ve had a very traumatic book-experience: I had to leave behind a couple of thousands of books collected with love and care and passion during a few decades, and while I never regretted moving to Canada, I still feel a painful bitterness when I remember my abandoned books…

So, in the not-so-brave New World I decided I would protect myself from such traumas by not buying books. I lied to myself, of course, because I am writing this in a room full of bookshelves and books. But in the beginning I started to read only light or relatively lighter fiction, cheap whodunit stories, spy thrillers, and some non-fiction volumes: either to improve my English skills or to gain a deeper understanding of the new country and its intricate society. Obviously, as a former “man of letters” (as we liked to say it over there), dealing with the printed word as a journalist, author, translator, critic (all in another language), I couldn’t avoid knowing of the so-called big names in the contemporary Canadian literature, but it was more like how people relate to classics: we know about them when they come up occasionally in small talk, but nobody really reads them. As shameful as it is, I have to admit that my knowledge of the contemporary Canadian literature, including its living classics, was – and still is – very superficial, despite the fact that I was an avid, perhaps voracious, reader all my life. However, as one gets older and older, the non-fiction (which over there at home was simply called “literature” – something similar to the original meaning of belles-lettres: the literary works meaning “fiction”, poetry, drama, essay, all the real writings by artists and jugglers of the words… or to borrow from Encyclopaedia Britannica, “the more artistic and imaginative forms of literature, as poetry or romance, as opposed to more pedestrian and exact studies”, (emphasis mine!) so this literature becomes predictable for the connoisseur. As smart theoreticians and philosophers figured it out, allegedly there are only a limited number of possible plots, inherited from the most ancient mytho-poetic eras of our distant past, and in all the stories in this thing called literature, they are just re-told and re-told by the writers in different forms. And shapes, and styles. As there is less and less time ahead of me, reading the overused stories just for the sake of savouring the style in my fourth, acquired language seemed to be a luxury that I couldn’t afford. Besides, the need to make a living up until the possibility of retiring arose, there were other, more pressing issues requiring reading in order to learn and understand, which means getting able to explain this new chosen land, its history and present, the ever-changing socio-political landscape of our immigrant country. Probably, my intellectual interests combined with the spirit of the former journalist and that of the eager student of cultures pushed me toward more theoretical readings and studies. It’s a work in progress and will never end… So, the belles-lettres were relegated to backburners.

An unexpected turn changed that perspective when the innate Eastern European storyteller in me started to entertain close friends with fantastic stories of my previous life (i.e. before Canada), and suddenly their reaction was “You should write down these stories”. Which is a trap, of course. We know the cliché that everyone’s life is a complete novel, as it goes, and on the other hand, being a storyteller doesn’t make you a writer. Yes, I used to make a living by writing all kind of texts – but that was in my native language and culture, with a twist because after my first emigration I had to learn a new culture without switching language. But that’s for another story, another day.

Finally, I jumped into this experiment to tell my stories by writing them down in English. It’s a fascinating journey, at least for myself, as I recall memories in different lands and languages, and trying to make them nice, rounded stories as I learned from my grandmothers who fed me with the oral history of the family and places. Their stories were always well-polished, just as we learned during my university years at the folklore courses, that while retelling them endlessly they were shaped into almost perfect beautiful stories, following some intuitive storyteller canon, a tradition handed down through generations.

That’s how I began to develop a vague interest in contemporary books and publishing: let me see the potential competition. Yet, in the Walrus article mentioned at the beginning, it was the non-fiction section of their endeavours that caught my attention. The Walrus was presenting the Field Notes series by Biblioasis. Initially conceived as short, maybe 20,000 words “pamphlets” because as they quoted from Voltaire: “Twenty-volume folios will never make a revolution. It’s the little pocket pamphlets that are to be feared. ” This became the motto of the series. (Some authors went overboard but overall the books create this pocket pamphlet feeling!)

After reading that article, I went online and immediately ordered all the Field Notes books published till that moment. I loved some of them while others left me quite disappointed or just confused. I still found the whole series exciting, and soon I pre-ordered all the next volumes. On good days, when I open the mailbox, the community mailbox that we all have to walk down the hill to get there, thanks to the lazy Canadian mailmen (and -women) there is a big yellow envelope with a new book in it. Because Biblioasis are nice people, usually I get a copy of an issue of the Canadian Notes & Queries (a literary magazine now owned by the same Dan Wells/Biblioasis for the past almost twenty years), and occasionally a small booklet, Bibliophile, or something else, together with a nice handwritten note.  The handwritten note from Emily surprized and almost shocked me: we don’t really expect nowadays such personal touch in dealing with companies and sellers. I know everybody else also gets it, but it is still giving a good feeling and, most importantly, good vibes. I enjoy the Field Notes, and started to look forward to the next one.

Sometimes I am even tempted to play with the idea of writing such a pamphlet. On Canada. On this adolescent state still living in its colonial awe towards the long defunct British Empire.

I know I am expected to write a few lines, or a short paragraph about all the Field Notes, I guess. Although I could be guessing wrong, overestimating my own importance. My overall impression is that they, the booklets of the series, deal with important issues of our times, and thinking ahead I can see how these little books will provide a fascinating documentation of the prevalent ideas of our times – for the historians 200 years from now. But then again: considering that all our daily newspapers (print or digital), all our periodicals, not to mention all our craziness on social media will constitute the raw materials for future generations of researchers of the past, it is a legit question to ask what is the “plus” that these pamphlets can add to the general sad picture.

The real question is, even if we don’t have an answer to it right now, do these small books succeed to focus on the Zeitgeist of the pandemic-ridden years? Can we trust that the topics presented in those pamphlets are the most important factors that will shape our future? I honestly hope they are, even though they don’t cover everything important (yet). I am also afraid that with the general intellectual decline the pressing issues discussed in these pamphlets will not reach a large enough audience to provoke if not a revolution as Voltaire predicted, but at least some radical changes in the society. Or are we, writers, and journalists too optimistic regarding the effects of the written word? Can the pamphlets function as Voltaire (and the publisher) hoped they would, unlike the huge and boring treatise tomes?

Or should we see them as contributions to the incrementalist policy – this is the theory that is fundamentally opposed to any revolutionary activity or even idea, being firmly convinced that the slow gradual change (hence also: gradualism) could, and would, cause better outcomes in our lives.

I dream of scenes like from an old movie of bygone eras: entrepreneurial boys yelling on the street corners dressed with the mandatory Hosenträger (braces) and newsboy caps – selling pamphlets of Biblioasis… with eager and impatiently curious readers lining up to buy!