As with most book lovers, I’m always intrigued by new book lists, collections, and libraries — discoveries that can revolutionize my reading habits. Not surprisingly, then, I’ve always been intrigued with the New Canadian Library series published by McClelland & Stewart.
My intrigue, however, often led to some frustration over how difficult it was to collect the series, and disagreement over the titles selected for the NCL series. Well, as it turns out, my frustration was uncalled for. I had misunderstood the series, and I would like to now thank Janet B. Friskney for writing a wonderful report of this Canadian publishing icon and for setting the record straight. Friskney takes a look at the origins of the NCL series and tells about the relationship between the general editor, Malcolm Ross, and the publisher, Jack McClelland between 1952 and 1978.
Apparently the NCL had no intention of deciding on and representing the Canadian canon. Rather, the New Canadian Library series was published to deliver “a quality paperback series of literary reprints that gathered together works either written by Canadians or set in Canada … for the Canadian reading public and … to establish firmly the teaching and research of Canadian literature within post-secondary institutions across Canada.” (3) Rather than selecting only books with the greatest literary merit that have resonated most with our nation, titles were selected that “could be seen as reflecting Canadian life in the various regions of Canada during the different periods.” (14)
Also, I’ve now learned that the NCL never guaranteed that a work would be immortalized. The decision not to number the titles in the series has made it easier for the publisher to drop titles “without arousing public attention.” (6)
A superficial examination of the content of the series of the Ross-McClelland years readily disqualifies the NCL of that era as a canon in and of itself. Numerous titles had no claim to canonical status at any point in the series’ life, while a number of titles highly valued by the academic community between the 1950s and the 1970s, such as W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind, Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, and Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, were notably absent from it. When the list is analysed more deeply, it becomes evident that during the twenty years between the launch of the series and Ross’s retirement, certain titles were largely ignored, others experienced a surge and then a decline of interest, and still others established or consolidated a claim to canonical status. (154)
The appendices alone make Friskney’s work worth picking up. The lists of titles included in the NCL, as well as all the titles that were only considered, will keep me busily reading well into my forties — provided I can find copies still in print — and I hope that Friskney publishes a follow-up book informing us on the NCL since Malcolm Ross’ retirement.
I really liked that Stephen Leacock titles were used as a financial aid for the publication of the series, as well as Ross’ careful selection of appropriate writers to introduce each work. Like many Canadian readers, I dream of being selected to write an afterword for a Canadian classic. (One of my aspirations is to be the Robert Fulford of my generation.)
I also really liked the discovery that many NCL titles were being used in high schools because instructors were selecting “titles to which they themselves had been exposed as university students” (164). Isn’t that just so true?
Alright, after reading Friskney’s work, I think I have a greater respect for the New Canadian Library series. While I still wish that Robertson Davies were included in today’s collection, and I wish that published NCL titles would never be out of print, I can’t think of a better series of Canadiana than the NCL collection.