My book list

I love a good list and, with the approach of the last day of 2008, there are plenty to peruse, what with everyone busy drawing up lists of the best and worst of the year, lists of things to do next year, and lists of things to buy.

My list fetish began early, probably while I was collecting O-Pee-Chee hockey cards as a 7-year-old. I would sort and categorize the cards based on a player's team, his position, his rookie status, left-hand shots vs right-hand shots — you name it — and then I would draw up a list of what I had or needed. This was an immense help as I waded into the school yard with my tradeable “got its” looking for my list of “need its.”

Somewhere in my late teens, I developed a habit for book lists — lists of Great Books or Books Every Educated Person Ought to Have Read and so on. Probably the first such list I came across was when I was in my final year of high school and was casting about for a university. In doing so, I ran across the list of books first-year undergrads must read in the Foundation Year at the University of King's College, Halifax. I didn't go to King's College — I went to Guelph — but I made a list of the books they were reading in Halifax so that I might work through them and, I hoped, sound as well-read as those folks.

So this first list of books I wanted to read got started, I suppose, some time in 1981 or 1982.

Now, more than 25 years later, that original list has grown and, in fact, has become two lists: One for fiction works I want to read and one for non-fiction works. Oddly enough, each has roughly the same number of titles — Just over 2,300. Now, if I won the lottery today and could devote myself entirely to reading the 5,000 or so books on my list, and I managed to read (a very ambitious) six a week, I would make it through my list in about 16 years.

Titles move around on that list, percolating to the top, based on a highly personalized point system. The point system started out when I came across my second list of great books and had to contend with the problem of merging my first King's College list with this second list. Should I arrange my reading order in the order in which the works were published? The current King's list is ordered that way. But what to do with titles that appeared on both the King's List and this second list of great books? Shouldn't the fact that they appeared on two great books list mean that they were, erm, Greater and should be read first? I chose the second system and decided upon some arbitrary award — allotting ten points or something for each title that appeared on both lists. Then I ran across more lists of great books and more points were awarded.

Those in academia at the time will remember that there was a great debate about the “Canon” in the 1980s all across the humanities. The Great Books on everyone's list (King's included at the time) tended to be written by white men from the cultural capitals of Western civilization. And so the idea and theory of a “canon” came under attack from post-colonialists, feminists, post-structuralists, modernists, and many others — some of whom generated their own anti-canon list providing me with more and varied books for my lists. For a still relevant review of the whole canon debate, I would recommend Paul Lauter's Canons and Contexts (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) which takes a critical look at the institutional practices in American post-secondary institutions with an eye towards how decisions are made about which books will be part of which course curriculum. It is not an insignificant issue. But I digress …

So I now had a rudimentary ranking system and, as I was an early experimenter on computers in the 1980s — anyone remember VisiCalc running on on IBM AT? — I had a machine and software that could sort, rank, and maintain my list. And that, of course, led to a more sophisticated ranking system. I incorporated weekly bestseller lists — allotting 100 points to the title at the top of the top ten list and 10 points for the item at the bottom of the list. If a friend recommended a book, that book got 10 points. If I read a book by Author A, then all of Author A's other books on the list got points based on this formula: (Number of Pages in Book Just Finished/2). If another work was mentioned, footnoted, or in the bibliography, then it got a point. If a book won a major prize – a Giller or a Booker or you-name-it — then it got an exceptional point total of 500 or so. Upon an author's death, every work on my list by that author gets 500 points. That last rule of mine has, this week, propelled two of Harold Pinter's works to the number one and two position on my fiction list, just ahead of some works by Arthur C. Clarke, whose works vaulted upward upon his death in March of 2008.

At every year-end, I now do a rebalancing, awarding points to titles based on the number of years they have been on my list. My lists has five fields: Author, Title, Current Point Total, Publishing Information, and Date Added to List, allowing me to easily sort or find based on any of those variables. Rebalancing in this way helps bring titles that have been hanging around on my list closer to the top. For what's it's worth, Michel Leiris' Manhood , Aristotle's Metaphysics , James Frazer's The Golden Bough are the 'oldest' titles on my NF list, each one added on Dec. 31, 1985. Metaphysics and The Golden Bough are on plenty of Great Books list but the Leiris title made it on the list after I'd read Susan Sontag's collection of essays, Against Interpretation. She had an essay in that collection on Manhood and I thought it would be an interesting read. Manhood, 23 years after making it on my list, is now right up there and will likely finally get read over the next week or so.

So there's my obsession and my hobby. A gi-normous highly personalized and idiosyncratic book list. And just so I might look back in a year's time and see what was at the top of that list, here's the top ten from each list as those lists stood at the end of 2008:


  1. Hurtig, Mel The Betrayal of Canada
  2. Grant, George Lament For A Nation
  3. Sokolsky, Joel J. Defending Canada
  4. Canada Massey Report on Canadian Culture
  5. Atwood, Margaret Survival (read once already, but due for a re-read)
  6. Leiris, Michel Manhood
  7. Aristotle Metaphysics
  8. Fraser, James The Golden Bough
  9. Buruma, Ian Behind the Mask: On Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Transvestites, Gangsters, Drifters, and Other Japanese Culture Heroes
  10. Goyder, John Essentials of Canadian Society


  1. Pinter, Harold The Dumb Waiter
  2. Pinter, Harold The Birthday Party
  3. Clarke, Arthur Childhood's End
  4. Austen, Jane Pride and Prejudice
  5. Blais, Marie Claire La Belle Bete
  6. Naipaul, V.S. A Bend in the River
  7. Mailer, Norman The White Negro
  8. Pinter, Harold Betrayal
  9. MacLennan, Hugh Two Solitudes
  10. MacLennan, Hugh The Watch That Ends the Night

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