Canada’s Greatest Books

What are Canada’s best 100 books? This is a question Stephen Patrick Clare and Trevor Adams are hoping to answer by polling Canadian readers. They plan to sift through the results and publish the list of those that receive the most votes as Canada’s 100 Greatest Books, a kind of sequel to their fun 2009 compilation, Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books. Readers are asked to email in their top ten favourites. “The criterion is simple,” Clare and Adams write on their Web site. “Only works of fiction and non-fiction written by Canadian authors and that involve Canada in some capacity will be accepted.”

I had some important work to do when I came across the best Canadian books project—so naturally I had to compile my own top ten list on the spot. There are different ways to define best, and in my case, I decided to focus on books I not only considered important, but enjoyed reading. That meant I did not include books like George Grant’s Lament for a Nation, an undeniably significant book on historical grounds, but one that has never really spoken to me on a personal level. Rather than rank my top ten I’ve listed them chronologically. Here are the first five, with the rest to follow.

The Engineer of Human Souls, by Joseph Skvorecky, translated by Paul Wilson (1984)

Skvorecky is well know as a dissident writer who fled to Canada from Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion of 1968. Skvorecky eventually became an English Professor at the University of Toronto, and The Engineer of Human Souls tell the story of his alter ego Danny Smiricky, who is himself a displaced Czeck writer teaching at a university in Toronto. Skvorecky has many funny observations about life in Canada, academic and otherwise. Much of the book however consists of flashbacks to Smiricky’s life growing up in Czechoslovakia, where he develops an interest in girls, jazz and other youthful pursuits. The flashbacks depict daily life under both the Nazis and the Communists, and the two regimes are so similar that they eventually blur together in the reader’s mind. No doubt this is intentional, but what stands out most about this book is not its political aspect, as interesting and humane as it is, but its emotional power. There is a gentleness and decency to Skvorecky’s protagonist that makes him an extremely attractive character, one you can’t help caring about. The closest equivalent I can think of is Leopold Bloom, another famously likeable literary character. The Engineer of Human Souls may not be as innovative or influential as Ulysses, but when it comes to creating a compelling central character whose emotional concerns merge with our own, Skvorecky is Joyce’s equal.

Philosophical Papers, Volume II: Philosophy and the Human Sciences, by Charles Taylor (1985)

Taylor taught political science and philosophy for many years at McGill. He is also one of Canada’s best know public intellectuals, as evident in his delivery of the 1991 Massey Lectures, co-authorship of the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor report on reasonable accommodation in Quebec, and winner of the U.S.$1.5 million Templeton Prize, the largest philanthropic award that a single person can win. I’ve written before about my disagreement with Taylor’s theory of multiculturalism, but he has written on a wide variety of topics, often with great insight. Taylor is an especially eloquent proponent of the idea that social science is something of a misnomer: the study of human beings inevitably requires interpretation and judgement, and so cannot be modeled after the natural sciences and the kind of objectivity they aspire to. When I first read Taylor as an undergraduate at a liberal arts college I thought this point was so obvious it hardly required stating. After enrolling in a PhD program at a large research university however I came to see that it is actually somewhat iconoclastic, as there have been—and still are—many academic movements that have sought to establish a science of human affairs, whether in psychology, economics or political science (even the name of the latter discipline is an example of the mindset Taylor is criticizing). Philosophical Papers Volume II contains Taylor’s brilliant essay on this theme, “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man.” It also has another excellent essay, “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty,” one of the most insightful critiques of libertarianism I’ve ever read. Interestingly, scientism and libertarianism are both intellectual movements that have thrived more in the USA than Canada, and Taylor’s salutary influence may be one reason why.

The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century, by Michael Marrus (1985)

I read The Unwanted a few years ago when I began researching my own book on refugee issues. Marrus’s book made me realize that a book organized around the experience of refugees could light up other topics, including but not limited to the political movements and conflicts that continue to turn people into refugees in large numbers. Marrus ranges over everything from early twentieth-century crises such as the Armenian genocide and the forced population transfers between Greece and Turkey to the arrival of the defector from the Soviet Bloc after World War II. He is most vivid however on the situation on Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, who Marrus convincingly demonstrates suffered the worst treatment of any modern refugees, not merely because of what they were running from, but also because of the brutal policies Canada and other western states put in place to keep them out. Marrus exhibits great sympathy for the refugees whose stories he documents, and his book is an example of the power of critical and empathetic scholarship at its very best.

Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, by Philip Marchand (1989)

This book was passed on to me by Jeet, my fellow blogger here at Sans Everything. I had no special interest in McLuhan when I began reading it, but I soon found it impossible to put down. Marchand engagingly tells the story of McLuhan’s rise to fame as a media theorist. The biography came out at a time when many people in communication and media studies dismissed McLuhan as someone who offered slogans (like “the medium is the message”) rather than substantive theories. Marchand shows that despite his reputation as groovy techno-enthusiast, McLuhan was actually a politically conservative Catholic who belonged to a venerable intellectual tradition, one that stretched back to the renaissance, which was ambivalent and apprehensive about progress and modernity. Marchand has said that part of the appeal of writing about McLuhan was that rather than being a cloistered intellectual he was active in worldly affairs. That really comes through in the book, which documents the intense interest McLuhan generated among U.S. advertising executives, some of whom excitedly flew McLuhan to New York and San Francisco to brainstorm with them and prominent U.S. journalists (including Tom Wolfe, who wrote an influential article about McLuhan). The book is also a compelling work of cultural history, documenting as it does the intellectual ferment of 1960s Toronto when figures such as McLuhan and Northrop Frye became figures of international influence (and, it turns out, intellectual rivals).

How Insensitive, by Russell Smith (1994)

I have the same relationship with this book that I have with records I listened to over and over as a teenager. I liked it a lot when I was young and for this reason will always have a special affection for it. Smith’s first novel tells the story of Ted Owen, a writer-journalist who moves to Toronto where he struggles to make a place for himself in the city’s unfamiliar and bewildering cultural scene. The novel offers a wryly satirical take on the literary and cultural worlds and has more than one laugh-out-loud passage, including a hilarious account of Owen’s appearance on a daytime TV show. Smith is a very strong visual writer who is able use trivial seeming details, concerning everything from what someone is wearing to the shadows they see flickering across a nightclub floor, to establish character and mood. His other great gift is for dialogue. The book crackles with expert renderings of many different patters of speech, from that of old-money Rosedale matrons to barely articulate bike couriers:

“’That guy last night,’ said the one with the bone. ‘I could tell he thought he was going to score with that chick. But he just totally wasn’t going to score.’

“’That guy,’ said the goatee, ‘he’s okay to be around, but sometimes he’s so fucking . . . I don’t know. You know?’

“’I was just totally ready to totally fucking go to sleep.’”

4 thoughts on “Canada’s Greatest Books

  1. I read How Insensitive at age twenty, and also enjoyed it a great deal. Haven’t read it since, however; have you?

    I enjoy peeking in on your site here, and seeing what you and Jeet are thinking about.

    Best, Carrie

  2. I loved How Insensitive – Russel Smith is one of the few writers that I reviewed “professionally” that I’ve actually returned to in my leisure time. As much as I liked Coupland in my twenties, Smith relatively younger age gave him a better grasp of what it was like to be in your twenties during the late mid to late nineties.

  3. A good list. I’ll try to come up with my own top ten list as well. I actually think Marchand subsequent book Ghost Empire is in many ways superior to his McLuhan bio, better written and more wide-ranging.

    I’m not sure I like the proviso that the books “involve Canada in some capacity will be accepted.” Northrop Frye was a deeply Canadian figure but his four best books (Fearful Symmetry, Anatomy of Criticism, the Great Code, Words With Power) don’t deal with Canada at all. Yet it’s hard to imagine Canadian intellectual life (or the world’s intellectual life) without them.

  4. Great to hear from you Carrie. I enjoy looking at your site to see what you are up to as well.

    I have actually read How Insensitive three times, the only novel I can say that about. It’s been eight or nine years since the last time, which is not very recent, but I’m often reminded of particular passages, which makes it seem like I read it only yesterday.

    Mark, I originally thought my choices would all be too eccentric to have even a chance of making the top 100, but the fact that you and Carrie both like How Insensitive makes me think there’s a small chance that one of my choices might slip through after all.

    Jeet I know what you mean about the Canadianness requirement. A similar requirement in a European context would exclude Waiting for Godot, even though it is one of the great commentaries on European civilization. I decided to ignore the Canada connection when drawing up my list, but realized in summarizing both Taylor and Marrus that both had an indirect Canadian angle. There’s a lot of good writing that comes out of Canada that treats an international subject, and I hope at least some of those books make it to the end.

    I’m looking forward to your top 10. I remember how much you liked the McLuhan book, so your praise for Ghost Empire is high praise indeed.

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