the chain letter reading list


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IMG_3128Remember chain letters? You’d drop a letter into the world with instructions to send it on again, and return mail was promised to everyone in the chain as their reward. Optimists imagined an epistolary chain forging bonds across the country. Pessimists like me fretted at being the next link in a Ponzi scheme designed to fund the Post Office through purchases of stamps.

Imagine building a reading list this way.

Last month, one of my colleagues started an email chain sharing his favourite books. They were books that, as he said, he “could remember where I was when I read them – they were that important.”

He should have known better than to start that chain. The team jumped in with their books. All we got in return was a fascinating, personal, and growing list of books that taunted us with the call of all books: “Read me!”

The List as we’ve creatively called it, stands at forty-four books of no obvious theme or taste. Disproving any argument for “classics” or “essentials” – because eight hardcore readers offered up not a single duplicate. Not. A. One. Not even Harry Potter or Shakespeare.

I have foolhardily taken up this challenge. You might almost call it a quest. Possibly even Quixotic. By the end of 2019 I want to read all forty-four books and anyone is welcome to jump in and out along this journey. Am I looking for more books? Please, no! Do I need advice on where to start or how to conquer the list? Absolutely.

  • Aldous, Huxley. Brave New World
  • Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon
  • Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay
  • Chabon, Michael. Moonglow
  • Clancy, Tom. Dead Or Alive
  • Claremont, Chris & Byrne, John. Dark Phoenix Saga
  • Dallaire, General Romeo. Shake Hands With The Devil
  • Dostovesky, Fyodor. Crime And Punishment
  • Doyle, Sir Conan Arthur. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes
  • Dumas, Alexandre. The Count Of Monte Cristo
  • du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca
  • Eggers, Dave. A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius
  • Ephron, Nora. I Feel Bad About My Neck
  • Goldman, William. The Princess Bride
  • Guareschi, Giovanni. The Don Camillo Omnibus
  • Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan
  • Hofstadter, Douglas R. Godel, Escher, Bach
  • Joyce, James. Ulysses
  • Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped From The Beginning
  • Larsen, Erik. Devil In The White City
  • Levin, Ira. Rosemary’s Baby
  • Lewis, C.S. The Magician’s Nephew
  • Lewis, C.S. The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe
  • Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks
  • McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics
  • Moore, Christopher. A Dirty Job
  • Oliver, Mary. Felicity
  • Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet On The Western Front
  • Robin Hood varia
  • Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone et al.
  • St. John-Mandel, Emily. Station Eleven
  • Schwalbe, Will. The End Of Your Life Book Club
  • Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Sheffield, Rob. Love Is A Mixtape
  • Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich
  • Spiegelman, Art. Maus
  • Strayed, Cheryl. tiny beautiful things
  • Thomas, Roy. Savage Sword Of Conan
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit
  • Tolstoy, Leo. War And Peace
  • Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast Of Champions
  • Watson, Peter. Ideas
  • Wilde, Oscar. De Profundis
  • Zahn, Timothy. Star Wars: Heir To The Empire

latin shorts: bede


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Ever invest a lot of time in something, only to forget about it? I spent over a decade working with Latin and it’s been nearly a decade since I used it. So, I’m rusty.

To get back into practice I’m starting a project to translate short passages I haven’t seen before. And I’m going old school. Pen and paper. Double-spaced copying for space to scratch out a parsing. And then a fair copy English version – albeit at a basic, I’m sure error-filled, level.

The scene for this short is early medieval Northern England. King Edwin’s baptism is the first recorded history of a church in York. A small wooden building that will eventually become the mighty York Minster.

baptizatus est autem eburaci die sancto paschae pridie iduum aprilium in ecclesia petri apostoli quam ibidem ipse de ligno cum catechizaretur atque ad percipiendum baptisma imbueretur citato opere construxit. in qua etiam civitate ipsi doctori atque antistiti suo paulino sedem episcopatus donavit. mox autem ut baptisma consecutus est curavit docente eodem paulino maiorem ipso in loco et augustiorem de lapide fabricare basilicam in cuius medio ipsum quod prius fecerat oratorium includeretur.

Now, [King Edwin] was baptized in York on the holy day of Easter – the day before the ides of April – in the church of Peter the Apostle, which, when he was being instructed and catechized for receiving baptism, he himself quickly built from wood. In this city he also granted an episcopal seat to his teacher and bishop, Paulinus. Soon after he had obtained his baptism, on instruction from the same Paulinus he ordered a greater and more majestic basilica to be built from stone, in the middle of which was enclosed the oratory he had previously made.

-Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, II.XIV

Fourteen hundred years later, as far as I know, any remains of this church are lost. But medievals loved their traditions and it would not surprise me if later Minsters were built on the same land as the first.


tea in the…islamic cloister


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Knox College at the University Of Toronto was my gateway drug into cloisters.


Then came years in England exploring the monastic ruins and cathedrals of the North. Their cloisters often hosted a tea shop where – especially on rainy days – you wrap your head around the solidity of being inside a stone hallway while facing so many windowless arches that you are simultaneously outside. Cloisters are the parallel universes of the medieval world.


So, when I visited the Aga Khan Museum this summer, I stumbled joyfully into a new Toronto cloister. Complete with tea shop. Obviously I had to stop.


The museum is a great addition to the city’s architecture. Unlike the ROM Crystal, the Aga Khan should age well. Its grounds are an OCD dream and the exterior itself is so plain and minimalist it will be hard to date in the future.


The interior, like the cloisters, are an ultra-modern take on classic Islamic architecture. The cloisters stand as a courtyard in the middle of the building. A glassed-in space open to the sky, with Islamic designs etched into the walls. Like the western cloisters and courtyards I’m used to, the space is both interior and open. It’s modern and old. And it’s a piece of another culture in the middle of a major western city. Everything about it is an inviting paradox.

The museum collection itself is small, but beautiful. Unlike most museums where I see artifacts from our common western culture, and can imagine them in use, these objects are alien and challenging. I don’t know what they are, who used them, or what they mean. But that meant I spent more time reading those little museum cards I normally skip past, learning about a new world. Not knowing the cultural meanings of the collection also meant I could appreciate their artistry rather than having a historical monologue running in my head.


Maybe that’s a profoundly Orientalist statement to make. But what I like the best about the Aga Khan Museum is that it’s absolutely not Orientalist. It’s not the Islamic floor of the Met, or the British Museum, or the Louvre. These items didn’t end up in the museum as the leftovers of an imperial adventure. Nor are they explained by a museum curator named Johnson, Smith, or Dubois. The entire museum is an exercise in cultural outreach from one world to another. And, of course, could only be founded in Canada.

7 books to ACTUALLY understand the american election


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This election year is baffling, especially to non-Americans. On one hand, there’s a candidate who has an elastic relationship with the truth. And on the other hand, there’s Donald Trump.

So how do you understand it all? There’s a surplus of writing (and bile) out there explaining the Trump phenomenon, taking down the Clintons, and trying to put the candidates in their best light. See, here, Clinton’s Hard Choices and Trump’s Great Again. But instead of reading these books, which we’ll all thankfully forget after November, there are more enduring, interesting titles to take a look at.


Hillbilly Elegy: Proud hillbilly J.D. Vance writes about growing up in Appalachia among the forgotten and maligned people of America, who slowly shifted from Democrats to Republicans. In the best tradition of the American Dream, Vance picks himself up (with some help from Marine drill sergeants) and graduates Yale Law. Here’s someone who sees both sides of an increasingly divided America.





Unequal Gains: Much of this election is about the revenge of the have-nots. In America’s answer to Thomas Piketty, this book reveals how America always manages to rebuild itself after a crisis – the Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression – but at the cost of dividing the rich from the poor.




Constitution Of The United States Of America: Everyone argues about rights, and amendments, and freedoms. Here’s a novel idea…why not read the Constitution? It’s a pretty short document and a model for governments around the world.






The Federalist Papers: And when the arguments about the Constitution end, people ask, “What did the Founding Fathers mean?” Um, well, in a series of letters to each other, the Fathers debated just that and wrote it down for posterity. Includes contributions from the original Alexander Hamilton!





Democracy In America: An outsider’s view of America. Alexis de Tocqueville travelled America in the 1830s and sketched a young, vibrant democracy for readers back in Europe. This travelogue still explains to America and the world what truly is great about that country (spoiler: it’s not a wall).






Things That Matter and DriftAmerica wouldn’t be America without ongoing debate and ~polite~ disagreement over the direction of the country. For these counterpoints try out conservative icon Charles Krauthammer and liberal lion Rachel Maddow.


i’m lovin’ it…


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What if you don’t get going until your fifties? Keep that question in mind – we’ll come back to it.

Think Apple and you think Steve Jobs. Amazon,  Jeff Bezos. Tesla, Elon Musk. Young companies still live under the shadow of their, often, young founder. Books about these visionaries are mainstays of bestseller lists and must-reads for managers.

But what about older companies whose brand overshadows their founder? Mature companies aren’t as sexy, and their founders are long dead so we don’t read about them as often. Which brings us to McDonald’s. No one’s idea today of an exciting brand. But a brand so embedded in the culture, protestors routinely trash it when they can’t get to the American embassy. What Tim Hortons is to Canada, McDonald’s is to our southern neighbours.*

And now there’s a movie:

The movie comes from founder Ray Kroc’s autobiography Grinding It Out. It’s an ode to hard work and grit from a Depression-era travelling salesman. And grit is a popular idea these days. Kroc was an immigrant who worked two jobs – milkshake mixer salesman and lounge pianist – before stumbling across a family-run burger chain in California. He took a chance, opened a franchise, and spun that into a global behemoth.

He bought that franchise at age fifty-two.

And THAT’S the great lesson from this book. At an age when most people are closer to retirement than their first job, clearing their mortgage, and ushering their kids out of the house, Kroc started a whole new life. The mantra today is that you need to make (or lose) your first million by thirty. In my previous life in academia you published or perished by your third decade. And at thirty, the sports stars are already past their prime.

Now, it’s not that Kroc sat around doing nothing until opportunity crept up in later life. During his travels, he gained insight into markets and demand. He developed an expertise and instinct that came from a career of observing and serving customers. It all set him up to take advantage when he could.

So, when we millennials can all expect to retire in our seventies instead of our sixties, and hopefully live into our nineties instead of our eighties, we shouldn’t worry that we haven’t yet made it in our thirties. Certainly, some of us will. But some of us will wait. We’re still learning. We’re still gaining wisdom.

And part of that wisdom is two lessons: don’t be scared of the slow lane. You’ll see more and learn more. But, secondly, when that fast lane comes up on you at a completely unexpected time, don’t be scared to jump into it.

Check out Ray Kroc’s story. Just because the book is old and he was *ahem* a mature entrepreneur doesn’t mean it has no lessons for us today.

*Proving  – pace Bill 101 – that you don’t have to drop an apostrophe or good grammar just for branding.

six best books of 2016…and one to come


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It’s that time of year again, when I unilaterally and authoritatively decide what are the  best books of the year so far. And as a bonus, add one book that you should all look out for later on in the year.

6. Seven Brief Lessons On Physics by Carlo Rovelli: I feel I finally understand the Theory Of Relativity. Anyone who can explain all of known physics in fewer than one hundred pages has clearly written a genius book. This one is so easy to get through, it should be added to high school curricula.

5. Tribe by Sebastian Junger: from the author who brought you The Perfect Storm comes an essay-length book on why humans work well in groups. And why we need groups. And group hugs. Inspired by Junger’s own PTSD after years as a war correspondent, Tribe is an important and troubling book about how our society’s individualism is becoming a collective exercise in self harm.

4. Dark Matter by Black Crouch: a novel set in the multiverse inhabited by who-knows-how-many versions of the main character. Who sometimes IMs himself across the void. And that is all you need to know. Read it before someone turns it into a movie.

3. The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: one of the most anticipated debuts of the year did not disappoint. A family of four backbiting siblings pre-spends their inheritance only to discover it’s not there. What do they do now?

2. Morning Star by Pierce Brown: brings to a close the Red Rising Trilogy. Intergalactic warfare. Intimate betrayals. Some surprising character exits and even more surprising returns. This rounds out a trilogy that is part Hunger Games, part Star Wars, part ancient Rome, and all political intrigue and science fiction adventure.

1. Pumpkinflowers by Matti Friedman: the best memoir of modern warfare, and ranks up there with All Quiet On The Western Front. This isn’t written by a gung-ho volunteer, but by a draftee doing what everyone else his age is doing. Regardless of your thoughts on the the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict, this is a poignant, truthful account of the low-level but long-running conflicts we send our children into today. These wars have the self-perpetuating logic of the Great War, the quagmire of Vietnam, and a lack of great battles and concentrated casualties to focus our attention on ending them. Matti Friedman could be any modern soldier, though one with a gift for remarkable phrases and just the right balance of cynicism and duty to his comrades.

And one to look out for later in the year…Trainwreck by Sady Doyle: I’ve never seen gendered double-standards called out with such vim. A book that will change minds. And how you view Britney Spears and Vincent Van Gogh. Yes, I just put them in the same sentence.

So, what have I got wrong? What would you add? Share your Best Of So Far and what you’re looking forward to this year.

read the north


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During high school, most of us read through the venerable CanLit canon. Atwood. Roy. Richler. Munro. There’s nothing wrong with these fine writers. But, as with any venerable canon, it isn’t particularly modern or appealing to teenagers. So it left me with an aversion to anything that smacked of CanLit.

It doesn’t need to be like that.

This month, Indigo launches the Read The North movement (also #ReadTheNorth). All your favourite CanLit is there but so are new voices from Canada in 2016. There is some INCREDIBLE Canadian writing out there, and its not all angsty, snowy, Mountie literature. These great reads have convinced this CanLit doubter to give it another shot.

fiction | The Orenda by Joseph Boyden: an historical novel about a Jesuit among the Hurons treads familiar CanLit ground, but does so with a fresh take, a realistic portrayal of the period, and at a breakneck pace. It singlehandedly restored my faith in Canadian fiction.

biography | A House In The Sky by Amanda Lindhout & Sara Corbett: I confess I haven’t read this one. But all I ever hear is how I’m missing out. This is a hard, but great Canadian story about a young woman who followed a dream, suffered, but didn’t let that stop her from trying to make the toughest places in the world a little better.

business | Double Double by Douglas Hunter: the story of our national shrine, Tim Hortons. Started as the retirement plan of a hockey player it grew into the dominant coffee chain in the country and, today, is so iconic it travels with the Canadian Army and hosts political photo ops. Now that’s a successful brand.

history | The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King: first of all, Canadian history isn’t boring. Secondly, it has never been so well told. I challenge anyone who dismisses First Nations history, culture, and place in modern Canada to think the same after reading this passionate book.

politics | The Longer I’m Prime Minister by Paul Wells: a snarky, clever, balanced look that explains the Harper years. Written just a few years before he lost government, it explains why Canada gave him with the country for so long, and how he tried to change it permanently.

fantasy | Sailing To Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay: I’m convinced that Mr Kay is our own J.R.R. Tolkien or G.R.R. Martin. With just a little fantastical twist of history, he crafts incredible worlds that suck you in and leave you wanting more.

nature | Bee Time by Mark Winston: no polar bears or Canada geese here. Instead, a poetical book about the hidden life of bees and what human societies might learn from them.

So, this Canada Day weekend, find a Canadian book and Read The North.


“may” in review


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Why the quotation marks? Because that could not have been a whole month. Not with only four books read. One of them less than 150 pages and the other a perennial re-read.

books bought: none

books read: Assholes: A Theory Of Donald Trump by Aaron James – The Don Camillo Omnibus by Giovanni Guareschi – Fates And Furies by Lauren Groff – Invisible Influence by Jonah Berger


Whenever the days get long and I’ll fall asleep reading, Guareschi’s collection of short stories is my go-to. It’s a collection of charming, comedic caricatures of a small post-war village in Italy. How does that turn into five hundred pages of short stories? Imagine a burly, cigar-smoking, duck-hunting, passionate social worker who cares so much, he occasionally gets carried away with his fists…or war surplus TNT.

Except by social worker, I meant the parish priest, Don Camillo.

And his main opponent? A die-hard, well-meaning, war veteran and mechanic who’s involved in local politics for the Communist Party. Who has his own “collection” of war matériel.

Except by local politics, I meant the the village Mayor, Peppone.

Together these two – who happen to be best friends and served together in the war – keep their small village running. When they’re not running at each other with fists or worse. But, despite their differences, they ALWAYS band together against outsiders.

These stories remain incredibly popular in Europe. Probably for their understanding description of small town politics. Where doctrine and rules are…stretched…between friends, and backs are scratched to make sure that people are treated justly and fairly. Not some bureaucratic checkbox of fairness, but a fairness rooted in a humane conscience that defaults to kindness. Or, as Guareschi says himself:

“If there is a priest anywhere who feels offended by my treatment of Don Camillo, he is welcome to break the biggest candle available over my head. And if there is a Communist who feels offended by Peppone, he is welcome to break a hammer and sickle on my back. But if there is anyone who is offended by the conversations of Christ, I can’t help it; for the one who speaks in this story is not Christ, but my Christ – that is, the voice of my conscience.”

all your books…and more stats


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Ever wonder what all your books look like? Or know how many unread books live on your shelves?

In a moment of long weekend madness I pulled all my books of their shelves. Every. Single. One.

So what did it look like? First of all, you can pull some cool f-stop work with your camera.



Secondly: plan, plan, plan. I just piled books up into read and unread piles. This resulted in serious structural integrity issues. Two major collapses. And one dogeared casualty.


Now, I confess, this didn’t include the six boxes of books downstairs in storage. And since I didn’t plan, the comparison of piles isn’t scientific. But I’m calling it for the unread books. Thoughts? Read are on the left (and check out that tilt in the front!) and unread on the right.


So I’ve got some work to do. And that means some book statistics, which are always fun. Let’s call it about eleven feet of unread books. Or, assuming about 1 1/2 inches per book and an average of 250 pages, upwards of 20,000 pages. Which, at my reading speed, probably means over 10,000 minutes or 167 hours or about seven days. Non-stop. One day I’ll skip sleeping, and eating, and take a week vacation, and read every unread book I own.

Until then, those books had to get back onto their shelves. And that lead to another unplanned moment…but more on that another day.

my tattoo story…and april in review


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April was a slowish reading month, but I did buy and read a great little book which I have to add to with my own story.


books bought: Pen & Ink Isaac Fitzgerald

books read: Sex Object by Jessica Valenti – Dark Matter by Blake Crouch – Brown by Kamal Al-Solalyee – Lily And The Octopus by Steven Rowley – The Hidden Life Of Trees by Peter Wohlleben – Pen & Ink by Isaac Fitzgerald – The Fix by Jonathan Tepperman

Apart from a great book translated from a German bestseller explaining that trees really could be Ents, and the entertaining multiverse of Jason Dessen(s), I didn’t get a whole lot of memorable reading done. Until I found Pen & Ink.

With contributions from Cheryl Strayed and Roxane Gay, this is a commonplace book of tattoos. Everybody’s story is illustrated – both on their skin and in this book. I have to say, most of them are not happy stories. Death, divorce, and depression seem the reason for many tattoos. But they do come at a turning point in people’s lives, at a point when you can hope that better days are ahead. This is a special book. Like the tattoos, the struggles and hopes of these people are permanent and, often, hidden. So it’s a privilege to be let into their lives.

My own tattoo came at a turning point. It wasn’t at the beginning of my divorce, and it wasn’t at the end – I’m not sure that sort of thing has a defined end. Rather, it came at the end of the beginning. At the point when the most of the darkest days were behind me and I could at least imagine things getting better even if it didn’t feel like it right then. “miserere mei deus – have mercy on me O God.” It’s the opening line of Psalm 51 and among the most brilliant pieces of music in history. Today it feels like we all only get one chance. One true love; you only live once; and if you screw up, the web remembers forever. So perhaps we could all do with a little mercy. A little second chance. She and I couldn’t make it work. But I’ve given myself a permanent reminder that do-overs are indeed possible in life.