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Note from the Editor
by Olga Stein

In August, 1995, Books in Canada was sold to a new publisher. Soon after, the tide of Proteus, the God of Changing Forms, swept into our offices. We were commanded to change our form, and to use the magazinist's art to do so. We were asked to build a place for fine conversation.

The movers are already here, moving out any objects that might absorb the precious, cautious whispering of the wise. (We want a place for fine listening.) To make room for our ascending appetites, the vault-makers are increasing our height to one cubit. Proteus has demanded a rather extravagant metamorphosis. He has demanded a magazine that might be read aloud. And we have obeyed, knowing our readers hunger for literary and intellectual conversation. And this conversation takes place in and around books.

But in which books? With 38,000 books published in Canada yearly, how is one to discern the most useful and delightful authors, the books that best help us to understand ourselves and the world?

"Of making many books there is no end," wrote Solomon. That he was at the time an author, writing a book, Ecclesiastes, does not in itself make him also a hypocrite; it was after all, a book on all the vanities. How indefensibly vain it would have been to overlook the vanity of the bookish!

One potential vanity of the lovers of books is a retreat into a few important books, as if no books being produced now could be of interest; as if the world, the city around us, were either staying completely still while we read, or incapable of influencing us. Book reviews moderate this vanity by reminding us of the industry, skullduggery, and lucky hits of others.

Another vanity peculiar to the bookish, that which makes them "ish", is the opinion that if they work hard enough they can "keep up" with the intellectual life of a people. This predisposes them to become accidental readers, reading everything that Chance brings their way.

They (some of our editors among them) pile books and magazines they hope to read on their desks, floors, pianos, divans, and radiators.

They (some of our reviewers among them) tell themselves, "In the 1950s, Northrop Frye, when asked to review Canadian poetry, read all the poetry published in Canada."

They (some of our readers among them) do not realize that Solomon's statement was not so much an observation as a prophecy. Now more than ever, we can say, "Of books, there are too many." One could not even pretend to be aware of even a modest number of the best of them-were it not for book reviews. Of which, we say, in all modesty, there are too few.

And most are too short. When a book's meat-its argument or development-is less available to the reader than the reviewer's opinion, pro or con, the goal of the good review has not been achieved. As the year unfolds, we will be lengthening the reviews of the books that strike us as important.

Reviews are not an end in themselves. They perform a service. They are a uniquely enjoyable genre that permits us to scan the intellectual and literary frontier. The Canadian Review of Books has been the name of our company since our founding in 1971. By bringing this name onto our masthead, we remind ourselves of our service: to give our readers a comprehensive overview of good books in a variety of subjects.

Canadians are writing and reading about the widest array of subjects, and we intend to cover as many as we can. Fiction, drama, philosophy, religion, history, education, poetry, visual arts, constitutional law, biology, literary criticism, ethology, ethnology, physics, psychology, psychoanalysis, social science, political science, anthropology, the theatre, economics, household economics, children's books, the cultivation of gardens, and the culinary arts. All these interests existing in us simultaneously remind us that the division of disciplines is a mere convenience. No serious person wholly confines himself to a single interest. Who would not want to have been privy to the brilliant intellectual and literary circle that surrounded George Eliot and John Stuart Mill-where developments in literature, philosophy, and science continually confronted each other? We owe our readers the seriousness of the artist who would not think of erecting fences around the Imagination, the Senses, or the Intelligence.

And how, over time, do we hope to enlarge the depth and number of fields that we cover?

"Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down!" echoed Pound-echoing Solomon. We are pulling down ours; transforming our form into content. We are stripping off our gloss, and celebrating the fact that we live in a country where rolls of newsprint white as snow and vast vats of ink to wash over it are readily available. We are about to go on a literary skinny dip. Lucre unspent on lycra will be used to commission more in-depth reviews. This way we can, paradoxically, expand our coverage, while continuing to attend to the types of books that have been covered in the past. What thou lovest well remains. The rest was gloss. What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee.

In our near naked state, we hope to attract reviewers for whom the ideal review is both objective and courteous. But are such reviews even possible? Doesn't this hope naively ignore that we are trapped like flies on the flypaper of history, our feet stuck in the gooey postmodern categories of gender, race, and power politics?

Fortunately, the editors of Books in Canada, have studied philosophy for many years, and have come to believe that the world is divided into the following four substances:

1) books,

2) authors,

3) book reviews, and

4) book review readers.

In the world, two forces, good and bad, allow there to be both good and bad books, good and bad authors, good and bad book reviews, but, curiously, only good book review readers. The commerce of the four substances, and their various mixtures, makes up the intelligible world, the world as we know it. In a recent and somewhat overheated editorial meeting, the editors determined that, according to these parsimonious principles, good book reviews are not only possible, but necessary.

What thou lovest well is thy true heritage. And well-adjusted Love can be, without too much disappointment, a rather lazy feeling.

The patriotic editors may appear idle, but this is only because they have learned, in their love of country, that the country need not be reinvented each day. They have concluded, with an indolent convenience, that Canadian Literature doesn't have to be feverishly manufactured each day, because it already exists in patient time. In fact, heritage, character, ideals, identity-the sense of who we are, which is stable over time, only exists through an awareness of history and tradition in time. It does not develop out of urgency. The famous problem of Canadian identity is most painful for precisely those who know least of Canada and its roots.

The development of a nation's literature is a process which is best left unabbreviated, just as the abbreviation, CanLit, can afford to stretch itself back out into Canadian Literature, and reclaim its dignity by sounding once again like a subject, and not a product. Though individual books are in important ways products-as those who have risked their wherewithal to produce them well know-they are not only individual products, not only made things that we do something with. They also make us and do things to us. Each good book is sufficiently complex, that it is best taken on its own terms. We can do more to deepen our tradition by attending to this process, than by grandiosely trying to manufacture culture, as though it were simply the product of an industry.

Besides, attempts to manufacture things such as culture and character don't often work.

Martin Buber, writing on The Education of Character, wrote: "In all teaching of a subject I can announce my intention of teaching as openly as I please, and this does not interfere with results. After all, pupils do want, for the most part, to learn something.... But as soon as my pupils notice that I want to educate their characters I am resisted precisely by those who show most signs of genuine independent character: they will not let themselves be educated, or rather they do not like the idea that somebody wants to educate them.... Does it follow that one should keep silent about one's intention of educating character, and act by ruse and subterfuge? No.... Education cannot tolerate such politic action. Even if the pupil does not notice the hidden motive it will have its negative effect on the actions of the teacher himself by depriving him of the directness which is his strength.... His aliveness streams out to them and affects them most strongly and purely when he has no thought of affecting them."

That which goes for the individual character goes all the more for the character of a nation. Hence, rejoice, that the new Books in Canada will strive to be unaffecting.

Northrop Frye happened to be a great book reviewer. He was great at comprehensively reviewing contemporary books, because he spent his life reading and reviewing the so-called Great Books or classics-those books that have been of interest across time and place, to people who are superficially quite different. There is no author, no matter how much he or she wants to speak for his or her time and place, who does not dream of creating a work that will outlast and outstretch both. Just as reviews of books from our time and place form our first line of defence against becoming accidental readers, a familiarity with the classics forms a second, deeper line against the accidents of time and place. As Frye pointed out, literature becomes important precisely when it is irrelevant. Irrelevant to the transient fashions and accidents of time and place. (Notice to our competitors: you may rejoice in the fact that Books in Canada will strive to become increasingly irrelevant. We will seek out and display those young and emerging Canadian authors who are most irrelevant.)

If we can achieve irrelevance, and be unaffecting, we shall only have one more hurdle to jump. Canadians are famously reserved. I, for one, adore our reserve, but not without a few reservations.

Our reserve, like any virtue, is three parts blessing and one part curse. At least when it comes to book reviews. The overly reserved reviewer kills good books unintentionally, by faintly praising, when something more expansive is called for. (Its counterpart, reserved hostility, is most often manifest as snideness.) Our space is precious, and in general we shall use it to bring to our readers' attention reviewers and authors who we think have something constructive to say.

And how to know which reviewers to trust? Unaccidental readers will only follow the advice of a reviewer who has earned their trust. This peculiar trust is established only when you have read a book on a reviewer's advice and seen that that advice was sound. Thus, to build a following, a reviewer must have something good to say about good books. This is the reader's secret weapon. It forces us as editors to find good books to review, and trustworthy reviewers to read them. As the year unfolds, we hope our readers will make the acquaintance of both.

Gerald Owen has joined Books in Canada, as managing editor. Mr. Owen, formerly managing editor, then editor, of the Idler, is a graceful writer and an extraordinary man. He is a witty, learned (and reserved) Canadian, who reads French, Italian, German, Latin, and Ancient Hebrew and Greek. He reads widely and deeply, and is the consummate non-accidental reader.

Finally, we wish to thank Barbara Carey, who served Books in Canada for many years as managing editor, and ultimately as editor, leaving her mark on the publication. A number of the pieces in this November issue were conceived and commissioned by her. We wish her luck in whatever she undertakes. Two new editors currently hold positions that she once held (and thus know first-hand how hard she must have worked). It is with a certain amount of humility that we reflect that, one day, new editors will likely fill the positions that now hold us. This, too, is the law, according to Proteus.

The editor


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