Some are academics. Some are journalists. One is an academic who started as a journalist. Their books fill one shelf that I think of, in my private filing system, as “my Canadian thinkers” section. All of them have expanded my point of view and continue to teach me things I would otherwise never know.
Malcolm Gladwell: The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, David and Goliath.
Gladwell and I grew up in the same town and credit the same English teacher, Bill Exley, for bolstering our love of language. Gladwell writes for New Yorker magazine and has published five books that popularize academic research in a variety of fields. Our paths crossed again in 2007 when I wrote a feature about him, “When Gladwell Speaks, Leaders Listen” as editor of the magazine at the University of Waterloo, where he received an honorary doctorate and where his father had served as an engineering professor.
Mark Kingwell: The World we Want: Virtue, Vice, and the Good Citizen
Kingwell and I first met at the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto, where we were hired as summer staff, a journalism tradition that brings in recent graduates to work for 16 or 20 weeks starting in May so that there are still people to report and edit the news when full-time staff take summer holidays. He left early to begin an MLitt degree at University of Edinburgh and later did his PhD in philosophy at Yale; he now is a professor at University of Toronto. At one point, he decided that he could be “an academic philosopher who writes journalism, but I can’t be a journalist who publishes academic research on philosophy.” My favourites of his many books are The World We Want, which examines how the notion and nature of citizenship is changing in our modern culture, and Better Living, in which he sets out on various quests to define and find happiness, including a diary report of his several-week experiment with illicitly bought Prozac.
Naomi Klein, No Logo
As left-right leanings go, I’m of the tree-hugger social-justice type so I sometimes find myself on the same side of an argument as Naomi Klein, the Canadian author and activist who is highly critical of corporate globalization and capitalism. A big mind-challenge for me was her 2000 book, No Logo, subtitled “Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies.” I’ve worked in communications and marketing for many years, and have led branding exercises. What I’ve learned to embrace as branding success stories, Klein treats as cautionary tales.
Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain On Music, The World in Six Songs, A Field Guide to Lies.
I first connected to Levitin, a neuroscientist who teaches at McGill University, because of his books on how music affects the brain. He’s quite the Renaissance man: he has also been a session musician, a sound engineer, and record producer, earning 17 gold and platinum records. In 2016, I went to a lecture he gave in Toronto as part of his tour promoting his latest book, A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age. It’s a terrific primer on how to read statistics and interpret information and recently won the National Business Book Award.
Margaret Visser: Much Depends on Dinner, The Rituals of Dinner, The Way We Are.
When Margaret Visser talks, you want to listen: she finds such joy and interest in the most ordinary of things. As a social anthropologist, she can tell you about the history and implications of everything from salt to Santa Claus: she should teach master classes on how to make academic research engaging and accessible. I’m glad to see her work is getting a revival as supernova U.K. food writer Bee Wilson has written a new foreword to The Rituals of Dinner and calls it “one of the best food books ever.” I first heard Visser via her regular radio appearances with Peter Gzowski on CBC’s Morningside; later I met her and her husband, U of T English professor emeritus Colin Visser, in Toronto, following the greatest compliment of my life. “Come over here and sit with us!” Colin said, when we were at the same post-event reception as they were. “You look like you’d be interesting to talk to.”
Carl Honoré: In Praise of Slow, The Slow Fix
Honoré, a Canadian-raised journalist, did not invent “The Slow Movement” but his books have popularized its many forms, from how we consume food to how we perform classical music, and his TED Talk on the topic has drawn nearly 2.4 million views. Born in Scotland, he calls Edmonton home although has lived for many years in London, England with his wife and children. The huge success of In Praise of Slow allowed him to quit his reporting job with Canada’s National Post newspaper and focus on book writing, presentations, and slowing down.
Main photo: Kelley Teahen