Plaques on Places? No Thanks!

Plaques on Places? No Thanks!

I love sense of place! As a strong advocate of sense of place, in literature and real life, I recommend stories well rooted in a specific site or region . . . it will make your stories more compelling.

However, I find this a bit disturbing:

“Project Bookmark Canada Puts Stories in Our Spaces”

On Thursday, April 23, 2009, Mayor David Miller and author Michael Ondaatje will be at Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct to launch Project Bookmark Canada, a national initiative to bring the imagined landscapes of stories and poems into our physical spaces.

Mayor Miller and Mr. Ondaatje will unveil a plaque (or “Bookmark”) bearing a scene from Ondaatje’s legendary Toronto novel, In the Skin of a Lion, in which a nun falls from the Bloor Street Viaduct during its construction.

The Bookmark is the first in a planned cross-Canada series intended to create a permanent presentation of literature in public spaces.

Yes, a project in Canada is putting ceramic plaques with text from stories in the actual locales. Seems like a nice idea.

“Many cities have tributes to writers. What makes Project Bookmark Canada unique is that these literary scenes will be read in the exact locations where the stories and poems are set,” says Miranda Hill, Founder and Executive Director of Project Bookmark Canada. “Readers can step right into the stories, experiencing the authors’ visions and the real locales simultaneously.”

But, hmmm . . . does this seem a bit . . . self-referential?

“These words by Ondaatje, Michaels and Lee inspired this project, so I am glad that we can pay tribute to them first. But there are countless stories and poems set in recognizable locales⎯from St. John’s to Toronto to Vancouver,” Hill says.

“I think it would be wonderful to Bookmark them all. My vision is that you should be able to read your way right across Canada.”

My questions: Only for literary fiction? What about genre fiction – romance, science fiction, fantasy, mystery – that uses real locales? Will they be similarly honored? Or is that less worthy?

And what about non-urban settings? The prairies of Willa Cather? The North of Jack London? Fiction set in the canoe wilderness Boundary Waters? Will there be a square foot or two of prairie or tundra or bog flowers removed to insert a ceramic plaque?

Sure, I like the idea of sharing public knowledge about writers and their homes and the settings of their stories. I like the idea of a walking tour, like that offered by the James Joyce Centre,  “In the Footsteps of Leopold Bloom”:

a special walking tour of Dublin, the setting for all of James Joyce’s works. . . . Join us for a walking tour of historic Joycean Dublin and take in some of the monumental and ordinary sights and sounds of the city in which Joyce staged all his works.

But do I need to see the text sprinkled all over Dublin?

(Here’s a great article by writer Mike Karsnak, on the Literary Traveler website, about his Joycean tour around Dublin, downing pints in Davy Byrne’s pub, “A ‘Moral Pub’ Crawl Through Dublin.“)

Hey, I don’t want to be too negative. Yes, I understand the role of a good PR stunt (I mean, public celebration of literature). Kudos to inventive and attention-getting literary events. But a permanent plaque?

And I find this goal either naive or chilling: “. . . countless stories and poems set in recognizable locales . . . it would be wonderful to Bookmark them all.” Yikes! To cover the landscape?

What about the next person who wants to write about that place? When they describe that place, do they include a description of the plaque from the previous writer (literary mirrors within mirrors within mirrors . . .)?

Does it smack of naming rights? Ondaatje Viaduct?

I’d say at least make it a temporary sign. Up for a year, then remove. Or make it of pressed paper, something will dissolve in the rain and snow.

And then, everybody . . . back to the book!

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