Thursday, May 1, 2008

Growing Up Literate In Small-Town Ontario

One of the best-kept secrets re: small-town life is how much people in rural Ontario like to read. I'm not talking about the weekenders with the million-dollar properties in Muskoka or Simcoe; I'm talking about people who live in Palmer Rapids, Orillia, Midland, and Port Severn. Those people like books. (Quick fact: there are more book stores per capita in Sturgeon Point, Ontario, than in either New York or Paris.)

One of my best friends grew up in Bancroft, Ontario, and he'd never shut up about how no one in Toronto knew Tolstoy like his Grade Eleven English teacher knew Tolstoy: "I'll tell you this about Toronto," he used to say. "In Bancroft, none of these assholes would even be allowed in the bookstores." Another time he said, "I remember the time they melted the rink's ice in January so V.S. Naipaul could come and give a reading. That's how much they cared about literature in Bancroft. It's not like here [Toronto]."

Around the end of the nineteenth century writers started describing the decadent, nouveau-Gothic milieu of the debauched small town. Its inhabitants were supposed to be prurient, dangerous, and, at best, semi-literate. (It was never true. In 1945 a government survey showed that most rural Ontarians preferred pre-Raphaelite art to the Marx Brothers.) But that's all changed, and now the tide's been reversed: Torontonians are the intrusive, dull, Harlequin fans; people in Coboconk just want Martin Amis to stop by for petit fours and some free-trade coffee.

I can't say why it's happened, but I'm not the only one to notice the shift. Another friend--a post doc. who'd been courted by several top Canadian universities-- asked, "Why go to UofT when Lakehead's fifty miles closer to home? Besides, up here we've got poetry readings, we've got people giving Chaucer seminars in their living rooms. What the hell do you have in Toronto? Professors inviting you over to watch American Idol?"

Growing up in a small town is a privilege fewer Canadians find themselves experiencing. The trend is toward Toronto--the centre of the universe--and places like Cannington and Kirkfield just can't provide the job opportunities of the DVP corridor. Does that mean Canadian intellectual life's likely to suffer? I can't see how it won't.

I'm reminded of what Michel Foucault said in 1971 after visiting Cameron, Ontario: "If I had been born here--had lived my life here--who knows what I would have done."

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