Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Next time you read on a bus, someone may be watching
WHEN Julie Wilson looks up from a Toronto subway platform, she sees not darkness and bodies, but books and stories.
Those stories are what inform Wilson's project Seen Reading, a longtime blog that sparked a wave of admirers and eager collaborators.
The concept was simple: Wilson would take note of a person she spotted reading a book, and what book they were reading, and even what page they were on.
Most of these were gleaned from Toronto public transit, where the "decidedly introverted" nature of riders makes it common to pull out a book.
She would then craft a bite-sized story inspired by the scene, by who she thought that unknown reader might be, and how that book might shape their life.
Now Wilson, a former online marketing manager for House of Anansi Press and self-proclaimed "literary voyeur," is putting her brand of micro-fictions to real ink. She's a deft writer and an equally adept social marketer -- she includes her Twitter handle, @BookMadam, in her biography and encourages readers to share their own "reader sightings" on the social network.
Seen Reading is a brisk read, tailor-made for summer and the beach: there are just over 80 vignettes, each one just a few paragraphs long (or fewer) and partnered with a line or two about the reader who inspired the scene.
For example: Wilson spotted a white man in his 50s, "with silver hair and jet-black eyebrows," reading Charles Foran's 2010 biography of Mordecai Richler. For him, she crafted a sharp but satisfying paragraph about a man who has dreams about eating "simple cheese and lettuce sandwiches" with a colleague.
Wilson has a facile imagination and a gift for ferreting out the extraordinary from the ordinary. Where Seen Reading succeeds, it is by provoking the reader to stretch for those precise and lingering scenes from one's own life -- the parting words of the bad breakup, a spouse's empty Scotch glass, sitting beside the bed.
And so each reader brings a life of their own to these stories, which are by turns pensive and challenging, provocative and even occasionally chilling.
Unfortunately, Wilson's sharp prose and easy creativity are hobbled by just how self-conscious her entire effort is, and how terribly contrived.
There's nothing revolutionary about crafting literary sketches from real-life scenes, a form that is a staple of any basic creative-writing class -- but the wisps of self-congratulatory text that bracket the vignettes seem enthralled by Seen Reading's cleverness -- the project "earned me the moniker 'Gossip Girl of the Book World,' " Wilson writes.
There's really no reason why it has to be so cute. In the prologue, she airily notes that the "Seen Reading Movement is alive in any person" who has ever wanted to chat up a stranger about books.
If we are now at a time where people-watching -- even with a nominally narrowed focus -- can seriously be said to be a "movement," it's safe to say the word itself has lost all meaning.
Melissa Martin is a Free Press reporter.
Freehand Books, 200 pages, $22
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2012 J7
(1 of 23 articles for this week)