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50 Canadians Who Changed the World

by Ken McGoogan

The humble list is having a major media moment. The success of Buzzfeed, a news and culture site that has embraced the list form, has pushed established news outlets (such as the CBC and The Globe and Mail) to organize their own information into bullet points. Lists are easy to read and can generate lively debate about what has been left on or off.

Veteran author and popular historian Ken McGoogan taps into this list-mania with his new volume. The book provides lots of fodder for debate over inclusions and exclusions and, while there can be no photo slideshows (at least in the print edition), the short chapters and clear, breezy writing style make it an easy, quick read.

The problem is that it is unclear why there is a need for this book now. McGoogan simply seems to want to tell everyone about a bunch of Canadians whose accomplishments and contributions to the world impressed him.

The short descriptions of these world-changers means we don’t learn much that’s new about any of them. Moreover, the quality of the writing can be quite poor. The worst lapses frequently come at the end of the brief chapters, many of which are no more than four or five pages long. For example, here’s the conclusion of the Céline Dion profile: “Show me another singer who can hit those notes with so little effort, and while investing them with such emotion, and I will show you another global superstar.”

To his credit, McGoogan’s list is diverse, with a particular effort made to include native Canadians, and it is nice to see artists and scientists treated as equals to humanitarians and activists. But there are a lot of people – like Russell Peters and K’naan – who are relatively early on in their careers, and whose premature inclusion could end up dating the book. And it’s not always clear how some of these people – such as Wayne Gretzky or Don Tapscott – have changed the world in a meaningful way (as opposed to simply influencing their fields).

In the end, the list of people – which might include school librarians and the parents of precocious pre-teens interested in history or politics – who will want to read this book is probably quite short.