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Great Canadian Books of the Century

by Vancouver Public Library

Vancouver Public Library staff were inspired by The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century. Why not a Canadian list of best fiction, drama, poetry, and non-fiction titles? The 133-entry result is a “celebration of Canadian writers and writing,” a way to share knowledge and favourites. Sound dull? Yet another insiders’ list of so-called bests? Librarians?

Quit being so cynical. Great Canadian Books of the Century is – a great book. Bill Richardson’s foreword asks that we debate the choices and whine over what’s left out (where’s Jennifer Bennett’s The Northern Gardener, I ask), but readers should resist that advice. Instead, enjoy the profound and quirky choices these inventive and passionate contributers believe define 100 years of Canadian writing.

Book clubs note: dump Oprah. Use this list instead. Start with Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970). In November you’ll do Roderick Haig-Brown’s Return to the River (1941) and A River Never Sleeps (1946). Begin the new year with Peter Mellen’s 1970 study of the Group of Seven and then The Emily Carr Omnibus (1993). Wash away the arts with Northern Enterprise: Five Centuries of Canadian Business or The Nature of Managerial Work (1973). One month, do children’s books by Kit Pearson, Paul Yee, and Farley Mowat or plays by the Georges, Ryga and Walker. B.C. book clubs note: 20% of these titles are written by British Columbians or about the province’s artists, peoples, and issues.

Each title gets a one-page summary: author bio, plot or subject quickie, awards, and historical context. The librarians’ prose is awful, but for familiar books, these portraits will rekindle romances; for more unusual titles – The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, for example – the kudos will motivate readers to hit the stacks. That’s part of the game of this book. Many titles are still in print, others found only with a good library system or human. Add a weird novel no one else would understand, maybe a history of your small town or ethnic group – or The Northern Gardener – and the list is yours: timeless, essential, Canadian.