I’m writing this on the first day of autumn, and the weather is right on time; where yesterday was warm and muggy, today is crisp, breezy, there’s a snap in the air. Summer is always too brief, of course. That’s the definition of summer: a glorious season which passes too soon. The tulips, then the lilacs, peonies, black-eyed Susan, and suddenly the chrysanthemums, apples falling to the ground, and the leaves change and begin to fall. Happens every year, but surprises me still.
What to make of this summer? It was beautiful. It was horrible. No, this: it was challenging. It challenged me. It began with grief—my mother passed away, not unexpectedly, but still shockingly, at the end of May. That grief persisted across the summer—it persists. I’m beginning to understand that it always will. But the love shared by family and friends, occasioned by Mom’s passing, was healing and buoying, and it goes on.
And then we were in Italy—hot and dry, but, well, Italy. It did its work on us. We were the pale, bewildered, bedraggled tourists, gaping out from the Palatine, or from atop the dome of the duomo, or from next to a narrow canal, wondering how can any place fairly contain so much beauty?
And then a bout of COVID (mild, mercifully), followed by a trip to the east coast to be with family. Red sand beaches, cemeteries. And whenever we were home in Peterborough, a hectic schedule of soccer games, baseball games, practices, tournaments, drives across the outer reaches of the Greater Toronto Area at golden hour while a child sat next to me tying their cleats, leaving muddy prints on the passenger side dashboard. I sat in a folding chair or on aluminum bleachers, cheering, thinking already about the drive home.
A trip by canoe to a beautiful campsite next to a waterfall. Swimming on hot afternoons, kayaking across an untroubled lake in the early morning as the mist lifts into the warming sky in puffs and ribbons.
Blue Jays games, in person, on TV, on the radio, while driving, while cooking.
Alongside all of it: reading. So much reading. Hardcovers, paperbacks, ring-bound advanced copies, or PDFs on an e-reader. Over a hundred and thirty books, or about a book a day at the height of it.
I was contacted late last year by the Writers’ Trust and asked to serve on the jury for the Atwood Gibson Fiction Prize, alongside David Bergen and Norma Dunning, both far more accomplished writers. I don’t know who at the WT thought I’d be a good addition to this company, but I employed my usual strategy: say yes and sign the papers before they have a chance to think twice.
Boxes arrived intermittently, crammed with books from presses big and small. We’d read them and meet by videocall once a month to discuss, to whittle our choices. David and Norma were kind and thoughtful and intelligent (or rather, they are) and the conversations were wonderful. We defended, and debated, and somehow agreed on some books. Then we read some more.
I had the constant sensation that I had something I had to be doing, because I did. Through grief, and happiness, and discovery, I had to get back to reading. There was always a book I had to be reading.
I want to tell you about all the books we read. I can’t—there are too many—but I’d like to. There were so many exceptionally good novels and story collections. So many good writers, pushing outward, telling new stories, or old stories newly. I’m very, very happy with the shortlist we created, but there are dozens more books I’d love to see acknowledged, books I’m grateful to have encountered.
In late August we held our final meeting, reasoned and bargained and compromised to deliver that shortlist, but named our winner unanimously. That winner will become public on November 2, at an awards ceremony in Toronto, but if it was possible I’d tell all the shortlisted authors, and many others besides, “I loved your book and I’m eager to read what you do next.”
When the role ended I was released to the tail end of summer, and I stood bewildered there, quite surprised that it had all come and gone, and that I was now free to read whatever I wanted. Or somewhat free—I quickly agreed to read a book on the history of the Dodgers in order to interview its author. But that was a choice, and in choosing a baseball book I think it’s clear that I was trying to milk just a little more summer out of summer, before the light changed and the weather got cold.
We’re there now, or just about, and I’m back at it, writing my own stuff, grateful for that time, and also for the chance to read a hundred-and-thirty-something books, though happy too that I can take a week, or two weeks, or a month to wade slowly through whatever I choose to read next.
I donated most of the books, keeping the shortlisted titles and a few others I loved and might want to read again, or lend out. So that’s my physical proof this happened: a couple of dozen books that I now have to make room for on the shelves, and these glasses on my face. Because somewhere along the way I noticed a blurriness and a fatigue in my eyes and so finally, right around my forty-sixth birthday in August, I made an appointment with the optometrist. She examined me and listened as I told her about reading all those books. “I’m finding it just a little bit harder to read things close up,” I said.
“Yup,” she said, “right on time.”