09 June 2015

About Those Butt-Ugly Laurentian Library Books

"'Butt-ugly' is a bit harsh, don't you think?" writes a friend in response to my description of Macmillian of Canada's not-much-missed Laurentian Library.

I'm not so sure.

I bought my first Laurentian Library book, Canada's First Century by Donald Creighton, in preparation for my first semester at John Abbott College.* Its pages had turned brown before leaving the campus bookstore. My second Laurentian Library purchase, volume two of Mason Wade's The French Canadians 1760-1967,  developed a curled spine, yet I never read the thing.

(Volume two of Mason Wade's The French Canadians 1760-1967 is nearly six hundred pages long.)

The Laurentian Library was meant to be Macmillan's answer to McClelland & Stewart's New Canadian Library. Cousins, they shared many of the same afflictions. NCL suffered no spinal deformities, but its pages were similarly discoloured. The covers of both were susceptible to wear; as with Tsarevich Alexei, the gentlest handling might bring harm.

Begun in 1967, nine years after NCL, Macmillan's series was heavy with Macmillan authors: Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callaghan, Robertson Davies, Ethel Wilson, Mavis Gallant, W.O. Mitchell, young pup Jack Hodgins and others. It was an awkward list conceived with a weak eye on the academic market; the other concentrated on an effort to keep Macmillan titles in print and, by extension, in house. Robert Kroetsch's But We Are Exiles rubbed shoulders with Pierre Trudeau's Federalism and the French Canadians, which was followed by Erik Munsterhjelm's The Wind and the Caribou: Hunting and Trapping in Northern Canada.

The NCL offerings of the same years were the ugliest ever, but Laurentian Library's were uglier still. Future publisher Hugh Kane acknowledged as much in a 1973 memo to John Gray: "Our books are manufactured very cheaply, printed on newsprint, and do not contain introductions." Sadly, his push for a general editor, the introduction of introductions and proper production values were ignored.

Directionless, the Laurentian Library stumbled along for nearly two decades. In The Legacy of the Macmillan Company of Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2011), Ruth Panofsky counts fifty titles and pegs 1979 as the series' final year, but I know of over thirty more, including #77, The Periwinkle Assault by Charles Dennis.

I'd never heard of The Periwinkle Assault before today. The second volume of something called the Broken Sabre Quartet, it was followed by Mavis Gallant's neglected novels Green Water, Green Sky and A Fairly Good Time. The last Laurentian Library title of which I'm aware – #83 – is The Winter of the Fisher by Cameron Langford. It was published in 1985. Did The Winter of the Fisher mark the end of the series? If so, should we not acknowledge that the Laurentian Library went out on a fairly high note?

I'm not talking about the cover. I'm sure it was ugly.


I've never seen a copy.

* September 1979, if you must know.

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