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Book Reviews

What Was I Thinking? The Autobiography of an Idea and Other Essays

by Rick Salutin

The essay is a very personal form, a fact that provides columnist Rick Salutin his point of entry into this collection of new and previously published pieces. Salutin is a type of intellectual determinist, seeing ideas as shaped and informed by personal experience. As such, they are always in flux: expressions of “an endless, evolving detection process.” In his essay “The Singer Not the Song,” he describes that process as being a bit like therapy, which is in turn a deeper or more imaginative layer of autobiography.

What Was I Thinking (Rick Salutin) coverThis perspective also affects reading (and book reviewing). Depending upon your own impressions of how the world works, you’ll find Salutin’s opinions – on subjects like the Holocaust, therapy, Harold Innis, and Canadian politics and culture – congenial or not. To say that you find his opinions informed, measured, and usually accurate, as this reviewer does, doesn’t necessarily mean you have journeyed down the same intellectual roads, but that you have come to similar conclusions nevertheless.

But Salutin is a self-described man of the margins – a Canadian, a Jew, a left-wing journalist writing for The Globe and Mail over a 20-year period. Not everyone will share his point of view. The virtue of his personal approach is that the reader can at least judge where he’s coming from. The downside is self-indulgence. (The father-son essays here are among the weakest, though one gets the feeling Salutin enjoyed writing them the most.)

It’s the nature of weekly newspaper columns to date very quickly. In the final section of the book, Salutin gives us a selection from his Globe years, introduced and placed in context with some linking material. These aren’t as impressive as the longer essays, but they demonstrate the same emphasis on the process of thinking, showing the critical mind in action. By embedding events in a “homey, personal context of thought” Salutin doesn’t reduce them, but rather expands on them, finding in the universal a multitude of individuals.