Shelf Defense: The Garneau Block, Human Smoke

In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

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TODD BABIAK, THE GARNEAU BLOCK (2006)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because I’ve lived in Edmonton for four years now. It was overdue.

THOUGHTS: I was standing in line at my favourite coffee shop the other week, and was struck by a shot of the corner of 109 Street and 87 Avenue on their in-house TV. It’s not a remarkable corner, really, but as soon as I saw it on the screen, it suddenly looked, well, important, in a way it never had before. It had added heft, a new significance. All from the basic fact that someone had aimed a camera at it and pressed record.

What I realized, standing there, is that when it comes to culturally significant places, and by that I mean places that have been thoroughly documented in books and films and whatnot—your New Yorks, your Parises—I had cause and effect all mixed up. You don’t get to sit back and wait for significance to come and settle on you. It has to be an active process. Document something often enough, and it becomes significant. That act of documentation, if it’s good enough, can be the thing that makes it significant.

The city of Edmonton has many problems. A big one is its chronic inferiority complex, which is made exponentially larger thanks to its place within the larger, coast-to-coast-to-coast inferiority complex that is Canada. This isn’t a city that feels comfortable celebrating itself—or at least it hasn’t, as far as I can tell, since Gretzky skipped town, nearly 25 years ago.

Since I moved here, in 2008, it feels like we’ve started to take steps away from this mentality, but it’s still there. You can feel it. That’s why the best local-oriented art I’ve seen is obsessed with, on the one hand, the idea of neglect, and on the other, with that constant precarious sense that the really good people are victims of their own success, ready to fly away, east or west or south, the minute their prospects allow them to. When I watch Trevor Anderson’s (Sundance-approved) film The High Level Bridge, I see an act of reclamation. When I listen to Cadence Weapon’s "We Move Away," I hear an important but usually mumbled question asked very plainly. (He’s since moved away.) When I read about the recent petition to build a monument in town to SCTV, I see both. Edmontonians are too often scared to plumb their own depths. It’s like we don’t think we’re worthy, somehow, of the self-scrutiny.

Yet every time we do it, we’re helping shape no less than a new mythology for the city in the 21st century. I really mean this. If we do this often enough, and intently enough, and with enough style and technique and heart, we’ll build something that even outsiders would have to agree is worth celebrating. Sometimes that means setting your short story in your own neighbourhood, instead of some vague, indistinct Everywheresville. And sometimes that means filming the traffic on the street outside Transcend (I do the vagueness thing, too—see the beginning of this post). Smart people already live here. I’m not going anywhere. My guess is it’ll happen faster than we think.

I want to read about Edmonton again and again and again, until it is undeniable. I want it to be a place that people can understand, with nuance, even from afar. Because fuck you—it is a fascinating place to live. That is beyond obvious to me. But nobody else is going to believe us until we show them why.

All of which is to say, god bless The Garneau Block.

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

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NICHOLSON BAKER, HUMAN SMOKE (2008)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because I found a remaindered copy, and because it made this list.

THOUGHTS: This is a pacifist’s history of World War II, assembled from hundreds of sources and presented one fragment at a time. It’s also a horizon-broadener of the first order. The trigger happiness and rampant anti-Semitism—on both sides—is positively nauseating. And, as usual, the general populations are not asked what they think, but told. In 1938, there was a proposed amendment to the U.S. Consitution that would make any declaration of war subject to a national referendum (except in the case of a direct invasion or attack). Dare to dream, hey?

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.