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Are dystopic literary visions becoming the way of the real world?

Dear Reader,

This is the name that we have for you. It’s also the name we have for each other, and for ourselves. We are writing to you now to introduce ourselves as readers, or rather to introduce something even bigger and better than ourselves: the books we like to read. Or, more precisely, to tell you that we like to read. Books mostly, but other things too. 

Reader, here’s what we’re really trying to say: we want to tell you more. About books. That’s it. We want to tell you about books and the people that sell them and the people that write them and the people that read them because we think they are an important part of who we are. Because we are readers, and because you’re one too. We want to tell you more every Friday. Some Fridays it will be Chris telling you more, some Fridays it will be Emily, and at least one Friday a month it will be someone really special, a guest reader who will come here and tell you more than Emily and Chris can.

We just wanted to tell you how much more we have to tell you.

– Emily M. Keeler and Chris Randle, readers both.

Okay, it’s true: I tend to prefer fiction to fact. Though some journalists (and essayists) who work with what you might call “reality” get my gears going, I typically think stories are better, if only because they offer a window to a different, much less banal world. I learned early that novels are a place to run to, islands of respite from the endless rowing across the boring and tedious ocean between birth and death. It’s a place, to abuse a phrase associated with one of fiction’s loudest champions, where I can go to get away from being already pretty much away from it all. Stories relieve me of myself, from the blandness of my mostly apolitical and largely unremarkable life, and none more so than fictions of the mystifying future. I like to escape from my uneventful world, overburdened with small problems, into an imaginary one. I inevitably return from my sojourns in dystopia flush with the pleasure of witnessing something truly exciting! Something extraordinary, something that, alas, will never happen to me.

While I’m not nearly so lofty as W. H. Auden–I can’t formulate a platonic ideal of my preferred genre of escapist literature–I nonetheless maintain that there are great virtues to reading dystopian fiction as a means of getting away. Chief among them is pleasure. Why shouldn’t I pursue this thing that pleases me? Second, of course, is the dual comfort and exhilaration that these sorts of stories provide. It feels good to shake and shiver with terror, to be absorbed into as strange and fearsome a place as George Orwell’s 1984. But it’s a comfort too. To be afraid of what these books depict, to feel those feelings, and that in the end they are made-up stories. The shaking and shivering only feels good because it’s all in good fun, because it’s all in the mind and on the page.

Take, for instance, this passage from one of my newer favourites, 2010’s Super Sad True Love Story (about a pair of unlikely lovers in the New York City of the near future), by Gary Shteyngart: “Anyway I went with Sally to this really pretty park in the East Village called Tompkins Square and there are all these Low Net Worth Individuals there and they’re camped out with all their dirty things and they don’t have food or clean water and they have all these really old computers they try to boot up but really they have no Images or streams.”

Or this one, from MT Anderson’s 2002 masterstroke (it’s about a future full of perfect genetically-engineered teenagers with networked microchips implanted in their heads!) Feed:

“Now that Schoolâ„¢ is run by the corporations, it’s pretty brag, because it teaches us how the world can be used, like mainly how to use our feeds. Also, it’s good  because that way we know the big corps are made up of human beings, and not just jerks out for money, because taking care of children, they care about America’s future. It’s an investment in tomorrow. When no one was going to pay for the public schools any more and they were all like filled with guns and drugs and English teachers who were really pimps and stuff, some of the big media congloms got together and gave all this money and bought the schools so that all of them could have computers and pizza for lunch and stuff, which they gave for free, and now we do stuff in classes about how to work technology and how to find bargains and what’s the best way to get a job and how to decorate our bedrooms.”

And of course, there’s this one from Margaret Atwood’s classic theocratic nightmare, The Handmaid’s Tale:

“Remembering this, I remember also my mother, years before. I must have been fourteen, fifteen, that age when daughters are most embarrassed by their mothers. I remember her coming back to one of our many apartments, with a group of other women, part of her ever-changing circle of friends. They’d been in a march that day; it was during the time of the porn riots, or was it the abortion riots, they were close together. There were a lot of bombings then: clinics, video stores; it was hard to keep track.”

I could go on, but hopefully you’ve felt the first few delicious chills crawling on your skin, a rush of fear-tingling endorphins spreading out through your body. How blissful it is to escape from the hemming and hawing of our quotidian lives, from the endless updates and chores, into a world of extreme danger. It’s no wonder I prefer fiction over facts; reality just leaves so much to be desired.


Emily Keeler lives in Toronto, Tumblrs for The Millions, and edits book stuff at The New Inquiry. Follow her on Twitter at @emilymkeeler if you please.

For more, follow us on Twitter at @torontostandard, and subscribe to our newsletter.

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