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The Writers’ Trust of Canada announced four awards today, including one for Rohinton Mistry – the Timothy Findley Award for a male writer in mid-career. His A Fine Balance is one of my favourites books, one of those books that envelops me in its world for the days I spend reading it, only to release me into the mundane world with a sigh. It’s overpoweringly, unapologetically depressing in parts, but always entertaining and enlightening.

Book awards are not exactly rare, but the ones announced today are a little different from most in that they reward authors for their careers, not single works. Unlike the Oscars or Emmys, these awards not only bring attention to quality work, they bring money to the award recipient (wait … Oscar and Emmy winners don’t get money, do they? I’m sure we’d hear about it if so. If I read one more article about the great swag the Oscar attendees get, I’ll have to mug Keira Knightley in March).

And just as the Oscars tend to boost a film’s box office and the Emmys tend to … do nothing much, if you take Arrested Development as a lesson … book awards tend to boost readership, which is why I even care that the Writers Trust bestowed one on a favourite author of mine. If they had a tacky televised award ceremony, I might care even more.

Much as I love movies and television, it makes me sad to think that the average bestselling book is read by a tiny fraction of the number of people who see a generic Hollywood blockbuster. I won’t whine about the increasing illiteracy of our society, though. It’s partly math. A movie lasts a couple of hours – maybe more if Peter Jackson’s name is on it. Depending on the book, it can take days or weeks to finish. It’s hard to measure precisely how long, since most of us read in bits and pieces without a stopwatch, but The Time Traveler’s Wife audiobook, for example, clocked in at almost 18 hours.

Plus, going to a movie or watching TV can be a social occasion. I might be a nerd, but even I don’t get together with my friends to read, and I might protest if a guy proposed a reading date. (Though my most pathetic/funniest date ever was watching television — a taped curling match with a guy who could not accept that I found the sport a complete snoozefest and hoped to convince me otherwise on our first — and last — date.)

Still, it’s partly that we want to read less than we used to, because there are so many other things competing for our leisure time attention, things like movies, TV, video games, Internet, in so many forms. Where we might have brought a book along on a bus or plane ride, or into a waiting room, or whatever, now we have the option of portable DVD players or iPods.

I can’t point any fingers. I hit my reading peak in university more than 10 years ago, when I slyly majored in my hobby, and chose English courses based on the reading lists rather than any academic ambition. Still, it didn’t leave much room for fluff (unless you count that Folklore in Children’s Literature course I took. Which, yeah, you probably should). I’d say I’m at my reading nadir now, with other activities (damn you, Blogger) taking up space where I might otherwise have picked up a book.

I have no value judgement to make. It’s sad that we don’t read as much as we used to. It’s sad that some of the finest writers struggle for recognition. But that’s true whether they write books, television, or movies, and always has been.

Is reading intrinsically more valuable than watching TV or a movie? The English lit major in me should say yes, I suppose, but the rest of me can’t. You can’t compare the quality of A Fine Balance to Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, perhaps, but maybe you can compare it to Brokeback Mountain or Crash or Good Night, and Good Luck. I spend my Tuesday nights analysing a TV show into the ground, so who am I to say that watching television can’t be as thought provoking as reading?

(Not gonna be cross posted to Blogcritics unless I get ambitious enough to edit it into coherence.)