Library program surrenders to self-help book

What one word would you use to describe a karmic occurrence like hitting a string of green lights or getting the last chocolate bar in a vending machine? Most would not be able to help blurting out: awesome.

Awesome – the only word to appear twice on Lake Superior State University’s annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse – is the subject of Canadian Neil Pasricha’s novel The Book of Awesome, which has been chosen for this year’s city-wide library initiative, One Book, One Calgary.

 Carolyn Reicher, customer service manager of the Calgary Public Library, An innocent blog that started out as a list of 1,000 awesome things eventually reeled in over 10 million hits and earned Pasricha not only a book deal, but a Webby Award three years in a row.

Photo courtesy of Berkley Books explained the goal of the initiative is to encourage Calgarians to engage in a shared reading experience and participate in the programs and events organized by the library throughout the month of November.

In 2011, the program hosted Steven Galloway’s harrowing novel The Cellist of Sarajevo, which Reicher said attracted some 3, 000 Calgarians to click the “Yes, I Read It!” button on One Book, One Calgary’s official website. Readers were challenged to crawl out from under Canada’s comfortable covers and not only consider life in a war-torn country, but also explore the role humanity plays in survival.

The Book of Awesome, which so far has reached 835 clicks on the program’s website, also touches on the concept of universality, but does so in a much sunnier way than its predecessor. A 400-page compilation of excerpts from his blog entitled 1000awesomethings.com, Pasricha’s book reminds us of all the awesome things in life that often go underappreciated (like hi-fiving a baby).

The library has jumped from a book that encouraged us to explore our role as citizens in a global context, to one a sullen teenager needing an easy pick-me-up might leaf through.

Is it worrisome that this year Calgarians are reading the No. 1 book on Amazon’s self-help list as opposed to something with a more literary girth?

Celebrate good times, cowtown!

Former writer and teacher Molly Lundquist said “tweet books,” like The Book of Awesome, are wonderful in terms of making reading more accessible for those with lower literacy levels or who have English as a second language, but we should avoid “limiting ourselves to short quips through emailing and texting.”

“It would be nice to have an expansive narrative to transport us somewhere else,” Lundquist said. “What was so great about The Cellist of Sarajevo, is it gave us insight to something we haven’t experienced in North America – the hideousness of war in our own territory. These themes are so important and profound because they make people question the very meaning of life.”

“I see The Cellist of Sarajevo as a lake. The Book of Awesome is sort of like skipping a stone on that same lake, but it doesn’t break the surface or examine why we need to lead compassionate lives or how we’re connected in any spiritual sense ”

– Karen Ball

However, library representative Reicher commented that The Book of Awesome was chosen largely because “the city as a whole was just ripe and ready to say: we are awesome.” On top of celebrating the 100th anniversaries of the Calgary Public Library, the Calgary Stampede and the city’s recreation department, Calgary – or what most of us have fondly dubbed Cowtown – has also been named one of the Cultural Capitals of Canada.

“I don’t want to say it’s not about the book, it is, but it’s more about what the book is a springboard for,” Reicher said. “It’s been a pretty special year for Calgary, and our job is to take themes and ideas from the book to a broader stage and try to create community conversation and engage people in a deeper way.”

Karen Ball, executive director of the non-profit organization Calgary 2012, commented that Pasricha’s book “presents a great landscape for the library to be celebratory,” but for the “cross-roads” of a city that Calgary is, a book that “has more depth to its perspective” could have been chosen.

“I see The Cellist of Sarajevo as a lake. The Book of Awesome is sort of like skipping a stone on that same lake, but it doesn’t break the surface or examine why we need to lead compassionate lives or how we’re connected in any spiritual sense,” Ball said.

Too busy for books?

Because Calgarians have such typically rigorous work routines, it does seem important to acknowledge, appreciate and celebrate what Pasricha – aka the “Pied Piper of happiness” – referred to in his 2010 TED Talk as the “free, easy little joys that make life sweet.”

Poet laureate of Calgary, Kris Demeanor said the busyness of the everyday Calgarian could have been a principal factor in the library’s decision to pick what is “essentially an inspirational book.”

This year’s One Book, One Calgary program encourages Calgarians to take a step back and think about the little things that make our lives truly awesome.

Illustration by Anna Brooks “It’s sort of surprising that readership is so strong in Calgary because it seems like everybody is too busy to read,” Demeanor said. “A lot of people I know read very rarely simply because they don’t have the time and they don’t make the time.”

Demeanor also commented that in an age where we so easily accept all the “lousy things going on in the world,” there is some truth to Pasricha’s optimistic outlook on living life.

“I’m always a proponent of trying to find moments of peace, respite and appreciation in every single day, and sometimes people need to be told that,” Demeanor said. “But when you’re trying to engage people, the big question is, do you forgo a book with real substance for the sort of book you could read in the bathroom?”

The Book of Awesome might not be the heaviest book on the literary scale, but the fact that people are being encouraged to read in an age where iPastimes reign supreme may be considered an awesome thing.

Former writer Lundquist, who also operates a website called LitLovers for “all things literary,” comments that regardless of what type, books are important because “they put substance into people’s lives.”

“Reading is more collective now,” Lundquist said. “When you hear what other people think, you learn different ways to read different ideas and interpretations. Let me put it this way, people are reading pages between covers and that’s a good thing. If they are reading them, hopefully they’re thinking about them too.”

abrooks@cjournal.ca