Professor in the faculty of law and school of public health, and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, University of Alberta
In his discipline: Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (Doubleday Canada, 2011)
I am fascinated by why people believe crazy things, particularly in the context of health. Why do people ignore the best available evidence and use unproven and unscientific alternative therapies? Why do people believe that well-known health risks don’t apply to them? Why do pseudoscientific and dangerous myths, such as those surrounding vaccination, continue to survive when so much science says they are bogus? These are, of course, complex issues. There is no one answer. But Daniel Kahneman’s wonderful and surprisingly engaging bestselling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, provides many useful and often overlooked insights into what drives our irrational beliefs and actions. Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, uses his own highly influential research while also masterfully synthesizing much of the relevant literature on why humans can be so darn irrational. This is one of those rare books that is both academically solid and completely accessible.
For pleasure: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (Little, Brown and Company, 1951)
Over the past year I decided to reread the books I pretended to read (and pretended to like) in high school: Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, 1984, etc. As a teenager, I struggled through these novels and then, in class, simply regurgitated a bunch of tired truisms about the relevant metaphors (“Um, did you know that Moby Dick is about more than a whale hunt?”) and themes (“Well, I guess Holden feels kinda alienated”). Going back to these books, now that I have a bit more experience under my belt, I discovered that they are more than cultural touchstones, they are ridiculously entertaining. I must confess, I’ve stalled on Moby Dick – it is not, as they say, a quick read – but the rest seem like completely different books than the ones forced on me in English class. If you haven’t done so recently, pick up Catcher in the Rye. The book is not just a riff on teenage angst. It is funny, compelling, poignant, and a great portrait of New York City. Next up, Shakespeare. I hear he has also produced some quality work.
Distinguished Professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Globalization and Cultural Studies, University of Manitoba
In her discipline: Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress, edited by Jennifer Henderson and Pauline Wakeham (University of Toronto Press, 2013)
This hefty collection of analytical essays by scholars from different disciplines brings together a range of perspectives on the various contexts through which contemporary discussions of reconciliation and redress are being understood, in Canada and globally, today. This serious engagement with the challenges posed by the culture of redress in Canada is an essential resource for anyone seeking to understand our history and for imagining alternative futures. Extensive appendices of primary documents from 1879 to 2004 enable readers to place these matters of official record beside the essays investigating their implications for understanding Canada, set in dialogue with themes of settler culture, citizenship, testimony, mourning, memory, performances of redress, and the challenges of “thinking apology beyond the Nation.” A milestone in Canadian interdisciplinary scholarship, this book repays the effort it demands. It is not written for a popular audience. It goes deeply into difficult questions. It provides no conclusion. If Northrop Frye was correct in diagnosing the central Canadian question as “where is here?” then this book shows “here” to be a complex place in which healing and hope are yet to be achieved but can be imagined differently.
For pleasure: Carpentaria, by Alexis Wright (Atria Books, 2010)
Every so often a book comes along that seizes your imagination, keeps you up all night reading, and then sets you thinking in a new way for the rest of your life. Carpentaria, by Waanyi/Australian writer Alexis Wright, is that kind of novel. Set in the northeast of Australia, near the Gulf of Carpentaria, during a time when an international mining company threatens potentially devastating environmental change, this book has it all: narrative energy, an ear for distinctive voices, characters we care about, and a fully realized world as conjured by the knowledge of “Aboriginal Law handed down through the ages since time began.” In this world where “the serpent’s covenant permeates everything,” the land, river and seascapes are alive and agential and the ancestors “might just climb out of the mud and tell you the real story of what happened here.” The story that follows this combined threat and promise is by turns tragic, frightening and funny, angry and loving, lyrical and colloquial, and uncompromising in the honest way it depicts the lives of both the settlers and the warring, fringe-dweller Aboriginal factions. Above all, this is a story of a search for hope in “the big stories and the little ones in between.”
Distinguished Professor in the department of environment and geography, and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Arctic System Science, University of Manitoba.
In his discipline: The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change, by Philip Conkling, Richard Alley, Wallace Broecker and George Denton (MIT Press, 2011)
As a cold-region climate scientist, I am always interested in learning new things about how climate forcing affects elements of the cryosphere (frozen parts of our planet). The Greenland Ice Sheet is one of the most dramatic sites I have ever seen in the Arctic and this book, in particular, opened my eyes to how scientists are rethinking the scale of how quickly our global climate system can adjust to either an internal or external perturbation. While studying – and teaching – climatology I always thought of the rate of change in our climate system to be at the thousands to hundreds of thousands of years. This book introduced me to the assessment, from various Greenland ice coring projects, that in the past our global system has responded at the decadal scale to various perturbations. This is a critical finding; it shows that the physical principles that control our climate system can in fact adjust to a new steady state much more quickly that we had previously thought. The Greenland Ice Sheet provides us with direct evidence of this. I believe that this area of research in abrupt climate change is very important as one of the key variables in deciding how we adapt to our changing climate and the immediacy of our needs, to find a global solution to the global problem of climate change.
For pleasure: The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, 2009)
My fiction pick is a story set in the near future here on Earth where our human desires, economies, biotechnology and climate change come together into a highly believable, dystopian society. The story revolves around cyber-organisms, concepts of human greed, slavery, abuse, bioterrorism and the inevitable impacts of our society using up all of our planet’s hydrocarbon resources. I liked how plausible this future Earth is as crafted by Bacigalupi. His thought-provoking future scenario stems from human greed, reliance on biotechnology, and the social and economic impacts of sea-level rise induced by climate change. He creates a fascinating framework to explore who we are as people, how we set priorities and what our future may look like if we are unable to temper these human instincts to the benefit of future generations.
President of the University of Regina
In her discipline: One Little Finger, by Malini Chib (SAGE Publications, 2011)
My area of academic research is inclusive education and I have worked in the field of disability for almost 40 years, so I have read many books on the subject. Few have been as empowering as a book I reread recently: Malini Chib’s One Little Finger. For my work, I spent a number of years working with Mithu Alur in India at that country’s National Resource Centre for Inclusion. Dr. Alur is an amazing scholar and woman, and through my collaboration with her, I came to know her daughter, Malini. Malini, who has severe cerebral palsy and struggles with everyday tasks, is a resilient and dedicated woman who has thrived in the face of unbelievable challenges. One of those challenges was becoming an author – something Malini did by typing her autobiography with one little finger. One Little Finger is an inspiring account of Malini’s life journey – a journey that has included completing two master’s degrees and becoming a tireless advocate for persons with disabilities. Malini has always maintained an optimism and a love for life that inspire those around her, and those admirable qualities come to the fore in her book. Malini knows no limits, and in her autobiography, she challenges all of us to be the best we can be.
For pleasure: The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton, 2013)
A book that was recently on my reading list – and one that I cannot recommend highly enough, particularly after having seen the author speak at the University of Regina – is Joseph Boyden’s 2013 bestseller and Canada Reads 2014 winner The Orenda. The book is very graphic and has vivid scenes which can be disturbing, but this helps contribute to its portrayal of living in our land of harsh winters. The characters are strong and independent, and though it is fiction, the story presents an interesting reflection on our country’s history of tensions and alliances between First Nations people and early settlers. The book is not without controversy, which is also part of what makes it so powerful. Hayden King, director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, has written that The Orenda is “a grim reality and a difficult book to read. At least it will be for many Native peoples. For Canadians, The Orenda is a colonial scribe and moral alibi.” This is a book I would recommend for a solitary read, with a critical lens, on a cold winter day.
Assistant professor of political science, University of Waterloo
In his discipline: Across the Aisle: Opposition in Canadian Politics, by David E. Smith (University of Toronto Press, 2013).
One of the best and most important recent books in Canadian politics is Across the Aisle: Opposition in Canadian Politics, by David E. Smith. It is a groundbreaking exploration of the role and evolution of a crucial part of parliamentary governance which, surprisingly, has been seriously understudied in the discipline. Cast in the light of an ongoing and fundamental debate about the workings and failures of Parliament in the last few decades – including the centralization of power in the hands of the executive, and the deeply problematic nature of accountability in Canadian democracy – Across the Aisle provides an excellent empirical foundation for assessing a host of key questions about the future of Canadian democracy. The book will no doubt contribute to new research and prescriptions for change. Indeed, reading it served as inspiration for my own new research project on the function of officers of Parliament (the auditor general, privacy commissioner, etc.) and their impact on accountability and public policy. Across the Aisle was the deserving 2014 winner of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences’ Canada Prize in the Social Sciences.
For pleasure: Sword and Scales: An Examination of the Relationship between Law and Politics, by Martin Loughlin (Hart Publishing/Bloomsbury, 2000).
One of the scholarly books I read most recently for my own enjoyment (although one I will no doubt draw on in the future) was Martin Loughlin’s Sword and Scales, an engaging and brilliant theoretical examination of the relationship between law and politics. Loughlin is a leading intellectual in legal theory and public law, and this engaging text takes readers through a deeply complex but highly readable exploration of what makes judging and the law a distinct practice, albeit one that is thoroughly embedded in – and constituted by – politics. The book provides a nuanced look at questions of justice, the role of the state, and sovereignty. It brings the reader from the foundational thought of the great philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke to an investigation of the place of constitutions and rights in the modern context. That it manages to do this in a relatively accessible and genuinely interdisciplinary way is what makes Sword and Scales one of the best books I have ever read.
Robert K. Lapp
Head, department of English literatures, Mount Allison University, and President of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education
In his discipline: Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion, by David Ray Griffin (Cornell University Press, 2000)
I recently encountered a great book of philosophy from my work on the Romantic period of literature and research into “post-Enlightenment ecopoetics” – that is, Romantic and neo-Romantic ecological poetry that integrates the findings of science with metaphysical intuitions of meaning and purpose in the universe. Even the most general reader would find Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion accessible, engaging and possibly transformative. Griffin’s writing is clear and cogent, and he offers an inspiring way to reconsider some basic philosophical issues, such as the mind-body problem, freedom, and how evolution could be consistent with theism without any resort to supernaturalism. The key to this latter feat is the “process philosophy” of Alfred North Whitehead and his followers, and if nothing else this book offers a readable introduction to this intriguing approach, which (quite strikingly) holds out the possibility of an “integration of moral, aesthetic, and religious intuitions with the most general doctrines of the sciences into a self-consistent worldview.” This is precisely the kind of worldview sought by “post-Enlightenment” Romantic poets of nature and the environment, and I found it inspiring to discover a 21st-century version of this worldview that not only makes philosophy exciting again but also provides a cogent metaphysical framework for contemporary ecopoetry.
For pleasure: Shaman, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 2013)
When it comes to pleasure reading, I’m pretty picky about selecting a novel I can allow myself to “get lost in.” So this past summer I tossed aside quite a few before alighting on Kim Stanley Robinson’s fully immersive novel Shaman. I had already read his Forty Signs of Rain (2004), set in a near future of global warming, so I could trust his capacity to create engaging characters and believable scenarios. What a trip, though, to find myself taken back to Paleolithic times in a novel that aims to recreate the circumstances behind the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave paintings of 30,000 years ago. Robinson combines his sci-fi skills of world-building with some pretty good anthropological research to create a fascinating coming-of-age tale for its central character, the shaman. I was drawn in by the opening sequence – a harrowing spirit-quest for a 12-year-old boy – and then captivated by a cast of characters in a richly conceived set of circumstances that explored, with intelligence and insight, a range of psychological, practical and philosophical issues. I can see in retrospect some of the flaws pointed out by the critics, but it is a sign of a great book that I was able to easily overlook these in favour of the rich pleasures of mind and imagination that it offered in such abundance, and that drew me, without stopping, from beginning to end.
Associate vice-president, students, OCAD University
In her discipline: Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties (2nd edition), by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett (Oxford University Press, 2014)
As a student affairs administrator, I am sometimes cast as the person who had such a good time in university, I just never left – as if that is what qualifies me for the job. Admittedly, most of us probably did enjoy our undergraduate years but anyone who bases their work in this field on their own experiences won’t last long. In fact, there is a body of scholarship in psychosocial development that underpins, and gives meaning to, the daily grind of running events, answering email and issuing disciplinary sanctions. What is refreshing about Arnett’s work is that it is neither student development theory (which tends to rely on studies of relatively homo-genous populations) nor is it generational theory (which describes, often crudely, the attributes of a particular age group in a particular era). “Emerging adulthood” is a term coined by Arnett in the first edition of this book in 2004 that has gained traction over time. It describes the stage between adolescence and adulthood – roughly age 18 to 29 – and explains the complexity of the space between freedom and responsibility. Arnett provides answers to questions that plague all of us in higher education: What are the cognitive effects of constant media consumption? Why are mental health issues more prevalent on campus today? Are parents a problem or part of the solution? What I appreciated most about Emerging Adulthood is its balance. Arnett is respectful, but never sycophantic, in describing his subjects. He explores the confounding variables of race, culture, education, and socioeconomic status with care. And he is critical but never mocking.
For pleasure: Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story, by Robyn Doolittle (Viking Canada, 2014)
I had no interest in this book when it was first published in February 2014. When you live and work in downtown Toronto, you don’t need a book to tell you the Rob Ford story. We were living it. Hourly. It was so distracting it became a productivity issue. It was not sport. It was just soul-destroying. How could our vision of the city and expectations of its leadership be so different than that of our neighbours just a couple of kilometres to the east, west and north? But then, during the relative calm of Ford’s stint in rehab, I started to forget. Maybe it was all a bad dream. Maybe it didn’t really happen. So I picked up the book and read it. Yup. It happened.
Associate professor in the faculty of culture and community, Emily Carr University of Art +Design
In his discipline: Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011, edited by Nato Thompson (MIT Press, 2012)
Public art in North America has evolved substantially since the 1930s when Thomas Baker McQuesten first launched his complex public art plan for Niagara Falls in Canada, and the Roosevelt administration developed the Public Works for Art Project in the U.S. Public art has moved beyond permanent public sculptures, monuments and building works to also include temporary installations, performances and community engaged practice. It is this last category of work that has expanded exponentially over the past 20 years, and with that expansion has come a list of terms to try and identify the broad range of activities within community based work. Terms such as: socially engaged art, relational aesthetics, intervention(ist), new genre public art, participatory, dialogical (dialectic), social exchange, collaborative/cooperative, cultural exchange, cultural production, social ritual, viewer-directed experience, social architecture, impermanent art actions, activist art, and labour-based practice – just to name a few. Nato Thompson’s Living as Form illustrates beautifully an extensive range of projects that have tested the boundaries of socially engaged art from 1991 to 2011. With essays by eminent researchers and practitioners such as Claire Bishop, Teddy Cruz and Shannon Jackson, Thompson plainly unpacks the key concerns addressing this contested territory of public art. A significant contribution of this volume is the space given to artist projects. Over half of this weighty 260-page text is devoted to a well-documented compendium of works from around the globe. It is an invaluable resource to anyone working in the field today.
For pleasure: Beautiful Scars, by Durwin S. Talon and E. Guin Thompson (Archaia, 2014)
I confess that I am not a long-time devotee of the graphic novel genre. I grew up with illustrated children’s books but made the leap from Where the Wild Things Are to Little House on the Prairie without passing through the pages of Tin Tin or Asterix. Comic books were something that only arrived bedside on sick days – Little Lulu, Daffy Duck, a box of Kleenex and a dose of cough syrup. But Beautiful Scars by Talon and Thompson has opened my eyes to a whole new realm of possibilities. This dual story is beautifully told not only by two amazing illustrators working in tandem, but also by 15 other incredible artists who each take on a page of the tale. If every scar tells a story, then this book is an encyclopedic volume of intertwined narratives that will have the reader laughing and crying at the same time.
Professor and director, Rupertsland Centre for Metis Research, in the faculty of Native studies, University of Alberta
In his discipline: Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, by Kim TallBear (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)
A colleague of mine, Kim TallBear, has written a brilliant book titled Native American DNA, which explores how the rise of genetic science has powerfully shaped the ways in which “Native American community and belonging” is conceived. In particular, she investigates the apparent ability of genetic science to offer objective criteria to provide answers about who is and is not Native American, in ways that other forms of association or belonging do not. What I found most fascinating about this book was the extent to which genetic “truth making” has been invested in not just by scientists but by Native American tribes as well (for various reasons, among them financial). Dr. TallBear demonstrates that while genetic testing can reveal biological proximity between individuals and populations, its current social power effectively marginalizes and even dismisses older and more longstanding forms of association, like kinship. Though she refers to this as genetic testing’s “false promise,” Dr. TallBear also points out that, although its rise signals a (not entirely positive) move away from the racist “blood quantum” logics that partly drove tribal membership in the 19th and 20th centuries, it nevertheless remains thoroughly saturated with its own conservative racial logics.
For pleasure: The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield (Black Irish Books, 2012)
This book is not new, but it is new to me. It is a fascinating and in many ways a deeply spiritual treatment of (as the subtitle suggests) how to be creative – and why most people are not. Novelist Steven Pressfield presents an accessible but thorough discussion of the various ways that most of us build up and come to rely on various “resistances” that prevent us from achieving our goals. Laying out a broad array of these resistances, he then provides detailed strategies for working through them. Central to success, Pressfield argues, is the decision – the act of will – to “turn pro.” That is, to stop with excuses about why we can’t do something (say, in an academic’s case, write) and just do it. He emphasizes concrete strategies that ultimately allow us to shoulder and make friends with the ever-present weight of fear of failure that is crucial to success. Consistency, doggedness in the teeth of rejection and dismissal, faith in self, and humility are, Pressfield argues, what separate pros from amateurs. He writes beautifully on the power of these “pro traits” to produce their own forms of synergistic inspiration. This book is an accessible and thoroughly enjoyable read.
Ann Dowsett Johnston
Journalist, author and former vice-principal, alumni relations and strategic communication, at McGill University
For work and pleasure: In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, by Gabor Maté (Vintage Canada, 2009); and Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg (Knopf, 2013)
While I was writing my book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, I found myself reading nonfiction almost exclusively – and that has not changed. I still read poetry, but my main reading obsession is with books that explore how we live. In the past year, two books have jumpstarted my thinking in different ways: Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I have read both twice, and each has caused me to reflect profoundly on the two subjects that interest me most: addiction, yes; and perennially, women and work.
Maté writes: “No culture can understand itself without looking at its shadow side.” His book takes us there, into the darkest corners of human misery. He explores the conundrum of addiction, cracking open a tough world with compassion and wisdom. “Addiction is always a poor substitute for love,” he writes. This is true, and the tenderness with which he explores the subject is both moving and enlightening. Politically brave, spiritually sound and relentlessly honest, his book is deeply valuable at a time when so many suffer from dislocation in a challenging modern world. No reader could be immune to his story of loss and redemption.
I bless Maté for truth-telling – and I bless Sandberg for the same. She confronts and exposes some tough realities, among them: men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, while women who display these traits pay a social penalty. “Female accomplishments come at a cost,” she writes, and this is undeniably correct. This is a great book for young women to read. But its real value may lie in the fact that it prompted a blockbuster discussion around the world, one that moved the ball forward. Perhaps Anne-Marie Slaughter said it best in her push-back review in the New York Times, in which she asked the pivotal question: “When it comes to ensuring that caregivers still have paths to the corner office, how can business lean in?” As a woman in her sixties from the ’60s – who has worked part-time, full-time and flex-time – I know that real change lies in answering this question.
A science columnist with CBC Radio One and a sessional lecturer at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University
In her discipline: Between Man and Beast, by Monte Reel (Doubleday, 2013)
I read this book as part of a guest-hosting gig with [CBC radio show] Quirks & Quarks about the adventure of Paul du Chaillu, a 19th-Century explorer and amateur naturalist. The book is a true story and weaves the lives of Charles Darwin, Richard Owen and many others with the little-known du Chaillu at the center of the story, because he was the first to bring back a full gorilla specimen to London society. This sparked outrage, fear, curiosity and most of all acted as evidence for Darwin’s controversial theory published in On the Origin of Species. It was an adventure book as much as a science book and told an almost unbelievable tale of science in England at the time. It was enlightening, educational and entertaining all at the same time. I strongly recommend this book as a wonderful new insight into the science establishment of London at the time.
For pleasure: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (Crown, June 2012)
Gone Girl was this year’s book club darling and for my book club it did not disappoint. A twisted tale of love, murder and the bonds of marriage that has since become a hit movie was a book that I loved to hate and couldn’t get out of my head. It was definitely sordid with an unexpected plot twist and an equally unexpected ending but a book that was talked about and talked about and talked about amongst my friends. I can’t say it was my favorite book I’ve ever read but it’s one that challenged me because the characters were both so equally despicable you simply cannot choose who to root for and that leaves you confused, guessing and ultimately thinking about the paradoxical people in your own life. The mysterious disappearance of Nick Dunne’s wife keeps you turning the pages but ultimately this is a study of two unique and compelling characters and it was as mesmerizing as it was frustrating. The conversations with friends about the ending alone make it worth the read.
Instructor and digital content manager, Western University
In her discipline: UnSelling: The New Customer Experience, by Scott Stratten and Alison Kramer (Wiley, 2014)
Despite being written by two of the world’s most established voices on social media, UnSelling isn’t a book about social media. It’s even less about higher education, yet, there’s an idea waiting for just about every area of the university if you’re ready for it. Unselling makes a strong case for better business and customer service as a social media strategy, rather than pre-programmed promotional content. We use Twitter to talk about ourselves and ask students for feedback via surveys with rock-bottom response rates, when the answers we are looking for are right there in our newsfeed if we would only stop talking long enough to listen. In UnSelling, Blockbuster vs. Netflix isn’t just writing on the wall of the video sector.
Instead, it is one of many cases where a dominant player held on to an out-of-date delivery method and fell to an emerging company offering the same content in a rethought, more convenient way. We are flipping classrooms, MOOCs trended for a while but didn’t get many students across the finish line, but UnSelling makes me wonder if we aren’t missing our lecture hall Netflix moment. I highly recommend this book to my colleagues in higher education. Paired with the authors’ previous work, UnMarketing, it offers an overview of what social media means for brands that will earn coveted out-loud laughter while also putting us all on the spot to think differently about whatever role we play on our campus.
For pleasure: Dance of the Happy Shades, by Alice Munro (Ryerson Press, 1968)
I’m quick to boast that having gone to kindergarten in Newfoundland, I learned to read and write before I was five. I was “that kid” who got in trouble for staying up all hours of the night to read. At Western, my roommates and I had a storage room piled up to our knees full of shared books.
After two decades of feverish reading, it slipped away. Maybe it was all the extra reading from university, maybe it was adjusting to work life, or maybe it was discovering HBO. When Alice Munro was named not only the first Canadian woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but also the first alumna of my own Western University to win the prize, her extraordinary short stories seemed like the perfect path to ease my Twitter-addled attention span back into reading.
Her writing has been such a wonderful welcome back to books. Each story offers characters that are harshly, perfectly real. She turns the everyday into something so romantic it really isn’t quite fair. Having grown up only with stories of life in Newfoundland, it took me by surprise how intimately Ontarian Munro’s stories are, and I’ve loved getting to know my adopted province through the eyes of her cast.
Thank you very much for your precious time, experience, and knowledge in order to recommend a wonderful list of all excellent books for this upcoming Holiday.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.