Finding History in a Collection of History Books

Travel bloggers and others like to proclaim that “History is Everywhere” (examples here, here, here and here). It’s an odd notion, at once obviously true on its face and untrue in much depth. Yes, everywhere and everything has a past, however short, but that does not actually mean much. A building’s facade might be old, but without investing it with some interpretation, related to events, people, or ideas of some historical weight, the facade becomes simply old, rather than historical. This was certainly one of Carr’s points in his discussion of facts in What Is History? (see especially his discussion of the 1830 death of a gingerbread vendor at the hands of a mob (page 12 in my Pelican edition)). Nevertheless, I wondered if I could find history in my own rooms and among my stuff.

One place to find it was in my office. It is a mid-sized office by academic standards, longer than it is wide. When I moved in the previous tenant had accumulated bookshelves that went along two sides of the office. I’ve kept them pretty much as they were, filling them with my own books instead.

The books perhaps offer a good place to start any discussion of history being everywhere. A quick estimate is that I have more than 1150 books and another 260 or so journals. Other than the clutter, the books probably are the first thing that gets noticed in the room.

They have a great deal of power, at least for the uninitiated. Several years ago a graduate student at the time confided to my partner that she was often quite intimidated coming to see me in my office. She said something like “He seems to know so much about everything, he’s read all those books in his office and knows where to find things in all of them.” To this, my partner laughed. “You think he’s actually read all those books,” she scoffed. “He hasn’t read them all, he just collects them.” The spell was broken, and by the time the student defended, I was no longer on her committee.

The cluttered office as seen from the door
 So, what is historical about the book collection? Well first, and somewhat obviously, they are mainly books about history. That’s not really what I mean about it being a historical collection, however. Rather, it reveals a personal history of my developing historical consciousness and membership in the historical profession. The books I first acquired were course textbooks. Then, as I decided this is what I wanted to be I bought books either because they were there, or because, eventually, through course work, through reading the footnotes and endnotes of other books and through talking to friends, I decided they were books I needed to have in my collection to assert my place within the profession. The most recent acquisitions sometimes still have need behind them, like those I get because they are in my teaching field, but more often they reflect something personal to me, either in their author or their topic.

The Canadian history shelves
At the same time, the books show the development and spread of historical writing in the 20th century and Canadian historical writing in particular. For example, the classics I have in my collection were among only the very few books published in Canadian history at the time, or the books that established new fields of study. But by now it is impossible to keep up with the entire field of Canadian history, and so my collection is much spottier.

For example, my textbook in HIST 144: Canada since 1534, Finlay and Sprague, The Structure of Canadian History, third edition is still shelved with my textbooks. Likewise, the textbooks for my second year historiography class (282) (the aforementioned Carr, along with Ernst Breisach’s Historiography, MARHO’s Visions of History and John Schultz’ Writing About Canada) are all still on my shelves. The other courses I took in my second year were on Indian and Latin American history, Canadian Foreign Policy and Shakespeare. I still have the texts from my Indian history courses and my foreign policy course, but I do not have the Latin American history text books anymore. The Riverside Shakespeare I still own, but that is at home, not at work.

At the end of my first year of undergrad I decided to do an Honours degree in History; sometime during my second year I decided I would pursue a graduate degree in history. My collection reflects that shift too. Every year in April, the Children’s Hospital in Winnipeg has a massive sale of donated used books. In my university years I started to buy history books. The summer between First and Second year I bought a book on 19th century Brazil I no longer own. The summer between Second and Third year I started buying books I thought would be useful or even necessary for a budding academic to own. So, I bought John Herd Thompson’s The Harvests of War: The Prairie West, 1914-1918. It was the first of the then McClelland & Stewart Canadian Social History Series I bought (it’s now published by University of Toronto Press). When I bought the book, in April 1991, the series was perhaps the most important book series in Canadian historical publishing, at a time when there were many fewer academic Canadian history books published every year and when they were still published by places outside of the university presses.  At the same sale that year I bought Carl Berger’s A Sense of Power, pressed into my hands by a fellow student, two years ahead of me, who told me that every Canadian historian needed a copy of this book. Another book I bought that year was my first copy of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, in its original Pelican paperback edition and with that famous cover image of a collier from Costumes of Yorkshire. I still have my original copies of Harvests of War and Sense of Power, although I lent that copy of the Making to a student some time ago and either told her she could keep it, or never tried to get it back (I have another, more recent and better sized copy).

The Non-Canadian history shelves. My current copy of The Making of the English Working Class is on the bottom shelf, second book shelf from the right (out of sight).
In the years since, my collection has grown. There are the two copies of my first journal subscription (Labour/Le Travail, numbers 29 and 30. I let it lapse for 30 issues before renewing). There are the books I bought for my seminar in Canadian Intellectual History in 1991-92 (some of which I continue to like and have re-read, like Carl Berger’s The Writing of Canadian History or William Westfall’s Two Worlds: The Protestant Culture of Nineteenth Century Ontario while others I did not even fully read at the time, like Curtis Fahey’s In His name : the Anglican experience in Upper Canada, 1791-1854 or Allen Mills’ Fool for Christ : the political thought of J.S. Woodsworth) and there are books I bought for other courses (like Judith Herrin’s The Formation of Christendom). In that era pre-Amazon, there are also the books I special ordered, like Herbert Gutman’s Work, Culture & Society.

My collection exploded in size after I began grad school in Toronto. First, there were books assigned for classes in my Master’s year. One course had many assigned texts that are still sitting on my shelves: David H. Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, Robert Orsi’s Madonna of 115th Street and others. But more important, through my course work, my friendships and my growing exposure to history, Canadian and otherwise, I began to seek out books I thought I should own. A large portion of them found in used book stores from where ever I was at the time. Where ever I went while in Grad School: Toronto, Halifax, Hamilton New Zealand, Boston, I would seek out new and used book stores and haunt them to see what treasures I could pick up. I had favourites, like Atticus Books, Balfour Books or She Said Boom in Toronto or Back Pages, Bookmark and the Daily Grind, and the Attic Owl (its lovely little building is now physically gone) in Halifax, or now the Edmonton Bookstore and Alhambra Books in Edmonton. I spent many a morning, afternoon or evening slowly reading through the stacks of books in the used bookstores. Sometimes I’d find that almost new book, sometimes the classic title I thought I always wanted or that every scholar needed.

the famous spine designs
It was at this time in particular that I struck out to collect all that I could. I collected Canadian classics. The first of these was Donald Creighton’s Empire of the St. Lawrence, which I received from one of my M.A. supervisors when I admitted in a reading course that I had never read it (nor did I until 15 or 16 years later, when I discovered a much better book that I had expected). I could identify these books from across the used book store’s isles because of the distinctive spines of the old University of Toronto books and the Carleton Library series published by McClelland and Stewart. In these editions I have all of Harold Innis’s work, as well as books by J.B. Brebner (his fantastic Neutral Yankees of Nova Scotia), Kenneth McNaught, W.L. Morton, George Stanley. When I bought or otherwise acquired many of these it was out of a sense that I should have them if I was going to be a self-respecting Canadian academic historian. I did not really want to read them. But more recently, I have begun to read them, and surprisingly find them quite interesting. As my friend Adele Perry was heard to say when we were in grad school in the 1990s, Stanley’s The Birth of Western Canada was one of the few books that treated the Riel Rebellions as colonial wars, as reactions to imperial expansion, even if at the same time the language and tone seemed to denote racist thought. When I read Morton’s Progressive Party of Canada at the height of the Reform Party I thought I saw great insight not only into Western Canadian political thought in the 1910s and 1920s, but in the 1990s and early 2000s as well.

I paralleled this collection of Canadian classics with those mid-twentieth century works of history that seemed to have revolutionised how and what historians came to study: Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society, Eric Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels and Age of Revolution, Fernand Bruadel’s ­Mediterranean, C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins, and Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society and William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and The Contours of American History.

There was a second generation of classics too: books published from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, often inspired by social history. In Canadian history this meant first essay collections like the 1974 book Women and Work: Ontario, 1850-1930, edited by Janice Acton, Penny Goldsmith and Bonnie Shepard, the 1976 Essays in Canadian Working Class History, edited by Gregory Kealey and Peter Warrian,  or the 1977 The Neglected Majority: Essays in Canadian Women’s History, edited by Susan Mann Trofimenkoff and Alison Prentice. Then there were the monographs. To take two fields (among many): In labour history there were Greg Kealey’s Toronto Workers Respond to Industrial Capitalism and Bryan Palmer’s A Culture in conflict: skilled workers and industrial capitalism in Hamilton, Ontario, 1860-1914; in Aboriginal history there were  anthropologist Bruce Trigger’s mammoth The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660 and geographer Arthur Ray’s Indians in the Fur Trade. Kealey and Palmer took their inspiration in structure, style and theory from the work of E.P. Thompson and the first generation of U.S. historians to be inspired by his methods. Neither Ray nor Trigger cite Thompson, but both books showed that the aboriginal people were active agents in the contact period, often superior to the Europeans in terms of surviving in Canada and quite willing to use the Europeans for their own purposes. In other words, all four books (like the women’s, ethnic and regional history written in the same period) showed that their subjects had their own histories worthy of telling.

While there was a great deal published in Canadian history in this era, important works stood out, and as a grad student and since, directed by my profs and friends, I was able to collect a great deal of it. At the same time I was able to find space on my shelves for the classics of the same era written for other places. Many of my shelves are populated with books like Perry Anderson’s Arguments Within English Marxism, The Brenner Debate, Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism, Natalie Zemon Davis’s Society and Culture in Early Modern France and The Return of Martin Guerre, Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labour, Free Men, Linda Gordon’s Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right and Heroes of their Own Lives, Douglas Hay, et al, Albion’s Fatal Tree, Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution, David Montgomery, Worker’s Control in America, Barrington Moore, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Sheila Rowbotham’s Hidden from History and Women’s Consciousness, Men’s World, Joan Wallach Scott’s collection Gender and the Politics of History, G. de M Ste. Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World and Eric Wolf’s Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century.

Books published since the mid-1990s are more difficult to collect. They are widely available, but both because of the incredible number, even in Canadian history, of books published every year, and because time has not settled which are essential (for the most part), my coverage is even more spotty and idiosyncratic than for earlier periods. Most important are the books by friends: Dimitry Anastakis’s Auto Pact, Sarah Elvins’ Sales & Celebration, Matthew Evenden’s Fish Versus Power, Christopher Frank’s Master and Servant Law, T. Stephen Henderson’s Angus L. Macdonald, Sean Kennedy’s Reconciling France Against Democracy, Rob Kristofferson’s Craft Capitalism, Sheila McManus’s The Line Which Separates, Steve Penfold’s The Donut: A Canadian History, Sharon Wall’s The Nurture of Nature, and many others. Then there are the books I should read because of the work I do and the courses I teach. So, for instance, I have almost every book published by the Osgoode Society for Legal History since 2000 and many it published before then. Likewise, I have most, although not all, Atlantic Canadian history published in the last many years. Then there are the books that are neither by friends or in my specific areas of study that I want to get because the topic sounds interesting (such as Peter Macleod’s Northern Armageddon or Kramer and Mitchell’s The State Trembled), because I’ve heard the book is good (like David Wilson’s biography of Thomas D’Arcy McGee or Franca Iacovetta’s Gatekeepers) or because it appears to be a classic in waiting, a book we should all read (like Jean-Francois Constant’s and Michel Ducharme’s Liberalism and Hegemony or Joy Parr’s Sensing Changes).

 Finally, there are the books I buy because I want to read them even when they are far from my fields of study (not that I don’t want to read books in my fields of study, although I can’t say I’m always excited about it). These are books like Perry Anderson’s Spectrum and The New Old World, the design books by Edward Tufte, or, among my most recent acquisitions, Thomas Penn’s The Winter King, about the English King Henry VII, about whom I knew nothing before outside of what I learned from Shakespeare, or Sheila Rowbotham’s Dreamers of a New Day which I am enjoying reading when I end up taking the bus to or from work.

This is a collection that probably says more about my personal trajectory into history than anything else. But it also reflects both the intellectual currents in English Canadian history and for English-speaking Canadian historians, from 1989 to the present and the changes in historical writing over much of the 20th century and into the 21st.


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  2. Nice! Reading this made me think of my own rather eclectic collection, reflecting my own personal and academic history and the many books I've purchased for work. (Granatstein's "Battle Lines" and a Canadian "Dance Encyclopedia" sit next to my favourite novel "The Diviners," and I really doubt any of them like being housed next to "Harperland.")

    As I try in vain to get used to my e-reader, I can't help but feel that I'll always love the look and feel of new books. For instance, I enjoy buying new editions of "Origins" and "Destinies" (I obtained my first copies in my undergrad in the 1990s) though not much changes other than the final chapter. I have few editions nonetheless simply because they bring back good memories.

    Perhaps the next generation who appear to be growing up on e-readers and iPads (though not entirely a bad thing) will still feel the same sense of nostalgia about printed books. I hope so, because books are worth so much more than just the words inside.

  3. I definitely feel an affinity for hard copies of books; I think they re-assure me that what I read was real and constant, however strange that sounds.

    Directed to Professor Muir: I am sure you have a few books in your collection that you wrote or contributed to. How does it feel to have something you created or worked toward in the format of a book on your shelf and how has that shaped your identity? Often the fruits of peoples labour take on more abstract forms like bank account balances, or goods they buy from the revenue they collect from their labour but wholly disconnected to their actual work.

    On another note, for used bookstores in Edmonton with decent collections you may be interested in The Untitled Book Shop located on Whyte Avenue at the former location of the Paint Spot near Chapters.

  4. Judging from the pictures, it looks like the library is a little disorganized, I'm afraid if this goes on; it will be more difficult to find the books that you’re looking for. Authors spend their whole life writing just to finish their books perfectly, so I suggest we give them the benefit of organizing the books for them. The key to a well organized library is to simply return the book from where you took it.

    Neil Poirer

  5. Actually, the library is pretty organised. Each section is alphabetical by author. The Canadian wall is divided into Canadian history books, then my journal collection, and finally, in the bottom right of the picture, my writing guides, dictionaries and similar books. For the Non-Canadian shelves, the far left bookshelf is dedicated to philosophy, economics, and the like. The remaining shelves are essentially made up of all other books (mainly history of places other than Canada). This last set used to be divided between the U.S.A., New Zealand, and the rest, but I felt that breakdown was unnecessary.