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One Book, One Vancouver loses its local connection

By going to the edge of the galaxy for the 2010 One Book, One Vancouver title, the Vancouver Public Library lost its local connection.

As the Vancouver Observer’s technology blogger, I suppose I should be happy that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was named the Vancouver Public Library’s “One Book One Vancouver” choice this year.

After all, the 1979 novel by Douglas Adams (which he based on his BBC radio serial of the same name) has been loved by geeks and nerds for over 30 years now. Marvin the Paranoid Android, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Deep Thought, 42, towels, Bablefish and Pangalactic Gargleblasters are deeply imbedded in our psyches.

I’ve read all five novels in the trilogy (including the sixth, which wasn’t even written by Adams, who, sadly, died of a heart attack in 2001). I’ve played the computer game, listened to the radio series, watched both the television series (several times) and the movie. 

But I don’t think The Guide should have been chosen as this year’s One Book One Vancouver title. 

A little background on One Book, One Vancouver. Based on a similar program in Chicago, it started in 2002 to encourage Vancouverites to read and “to talk about a variety of topics by spotlighting a remarkable book through fun and exciting programs”. Library staff shortlist three books, which VPL patrons then vote on either through the library’s website or using ballots available in VPL branches. The library hosts various public events in the fall that tie in with the book, and offers sets of the book for loan to book clubs. Previous winners have included Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park, Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, Joel Bakan’s The Corporation and Karen X. Tulchinsky’s The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky (a complete list can be found  at

All the previous titles related in some way either to Vancouver or British Columbia. Stanley Park was of course set in Vancouver. Ruth Ozeki actually researched and wrote large parts of My Year of Meats in the Vancouver Public Library, Kogawa lived in Vancouver for many years, Tulchinsky, Wayson Choy and Patrick Lane also live here. Last year’s two books related to Canadian sports teams, tying in nicely with the 2010 Winter Olympics.

But The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? I’m sorry, but I don’t see the Vancouver connection. Adams was from England and his book has nothing to do with Vancouver or British Columbia. 

According to the Vancouver Public Library’s website, “any book chosen for a city-wide book club should be interesting, engaging, and easy to read; have ideas, history, and discussible themes that would bring readers together; and, preferably, an author who was willing to engage in discussion with readers.”

The Guide is certainly interesting, engaging and easy to read. And yes, some of its ideas and themes (planetary destruction, inter-species communication, environmental customization, the search for the reason for existence) are worth discussing. Adams was a passionate environmentalist and did much to raise awareness of the destruction of the rain forest and other fragile ecosystems. Unfortunately, he will not be available “to engage in discussion with readers” since he died nine years ago.

(Curiously, the VPL isn't addressing any of these topics in the activities surrounding the book. Instead, topics include UFOs, travel writing and a "Vogon Poetry Slam-Off". Even though I feel The Guide shouldn't be this year's choice, I feel the VPL is doing Adams, and Vancouver readers, a disfavour by such a shallow exploration of the book and its themes.)

There was no need to go to England or beyond the grave to find a science fiction author with environmental and societal themes worthy of discussion. There are several local, living authors who fit the bill. 

For example, why not world-renowned William Gibson, author of (among other novels) Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive and the recent Zero History? Gibson’s books explore the impact of the information age on individuals and societies. And for a local angle, his 2007 novel, Spook Country, also gives us a different perspective of Vancouver as the protagonists of the novel, strangers to our city, visit it for the first time. Certainly, that could start some interesting discussions among book club readers.

Or if not Gibson, what about Spider Robinson (author of many science fiction novels and short stories), Donna McMahon (who sets her 2002 novel Dance of Knives and its 2010 sequel Second Childhood in a 22nd century post global warming Vancouver), or Crawford Kilian (former Capilano College lecturer and novelist)? All three live in British Columbia and have written science fiction novels that touch on themes and ideas worthy of discussion.

I hope that next year the library staff who shortlist the nominees return to a Vancouver focus. There are many talented local writers who have published lively, provocative, interesting novels and non-fiction books. 

But in the meantime, if you’ve never read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, grab a copy at the VPL and get ready to enjoy one of the giddiest, amusing and thought-provoking reading experiences of your life.

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