Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Books of 2014

Looking in the brick/mortar and online book selling sites this December, it looked to me like this was not a year when Canadian history titles dominated the best-seller tables.  The CanHist title I encountered most frequently, from a pretty thin lot, was Tim Cook's The Necessary War

Another Canadian history I saw well-represented in the marketplace was Allan Levine's Toronto: Biography of a City -- though that was presumably a Toronto-interest title. And the third big history title in the sales lists (did it sell out before Christmas? I did not see so many in stores in December) was Mark Collin Read's Canada's Great War Album.

Cook's Necessary War, the first of a two-volume history of the Canadian experience of the Second World War, will soon stand alongside his very successful companion work, Canadians Fighting the Great War. Given that the first of the WW1 titles appeared as recently as 2007, the production of these two big histories in four big volumes is a tremendous achievement. Appropriately, Cook was named to the Order of Canada the other day, following up on several other honours for those works.

Levine's Toronto found itself under my Christmas tree, so I'm becoming happily familiar with it.  It's a very accomplished work, and has been fuelling my cocktail party conversation since I first opened it. I do smile sometimes over his frequent complaints that Toronto seems to think it is the centre of Canada just because it is. But I'm glad of its outsider perspective most of the time, and there is much lively material here. Reading here how Toronto's business elite, civic establishment, media owners, and opinion leaders have for decades always opted for the most crass, short-sighted, pound-foolish, and vision-destroying plans for the city, you begin to realize that Rob Ford may have been an aberration but that support for him was not. Toronto's leadership -- very much in the tank for Ford four years ago, though they knew who he was then -- has always opted for the worst available candidates for mayor and council. Now that 2014's choice looks to be shaping up as another example, Levine's here to say: should have known!

Canada's Great War Album  (I wrote a short piece for it) is notable not only for identifying, hitting, and almost monopolizing the market for a First World War centennial commemorative volume, but also for demonstrating that big history titles can build on the fashion for crowd-sourced, social-media-driven, user-generated content. Canada's History Society leveraged its magazine and website networks very effectively (it seemed to me; I was not part of that) to recruit contributions of photographs, memorabilia, and stories from subscribers and readers across Canada,  mostly via online connections -- a very 21st century twist on a rather traditional historical genre.   

If those were the big three at the end of the year, what else was notable in Canadian historical writing and publishing? James Dashuk's Clearing The Plains was a 2013 book but the impact of its powerful indictment of the dispossession of First Nations from the prairie west continue to reverberate well into 2014, and it won the Macdonald Prize from the Canadian Historical Association. 

I admired two books by Smiths:  Donald Smith's Mississauga Portraits, a skillful set of short biographies of 18th and 19th century leaders from Ontario, winner of the Chalmers Prize, and Stephen Smith's clever Puckstruck (subtitle: Distracted, Delighted and Distressed by Canada's Hockey Obsession), a very literary and quite historical hockey book you wouldn't have to be a hockey fan to enjoy.

No doubt there are a thousand specialist titles and local studies I don't know of and may never get to. (e.g., Hugh Johnston's lavish Voyage of the Komagata Maru may be the west coast equivalent of Levine's Toronto for local prominence).  

One local history I, child of the Kootenays, have been meaning to treat myself to is Kathleen Rodgers' Welcome to Resisterville: American Dissidents in British Columbia.  Let that one also stand in for all the terrific books by women I (or maybe the publishing industry) have neglected to note this year.

Going international, Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century is currently the 2014 history title most likely to have lasting impact,  But the big book of 2014 I wholeheartedly recommend is Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton: A Global History.  I've seen it hailed as the model of a new kind of history of capitalism, which I guess it is, but it also appealed to me as a throwback to the kind of big histories people used to write maybe thirty years ago: ambitious social and economic histories build from masses of data drawn from vast amounts of pioneering archival research. These days when everyone talks theory all the time and new research sometimes seems an afterthought, it's the data in Empire of Cotton that really impressed me, though indeed the analysis is powerful and persuasive too. You may be hearing a lot about the idea of "war capitalism" in coming years because of Beckert.  

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