Collecting Canadian Books

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First appeared in CNQ magazine.

I don’t buy cheap shoes. I buy expensive shoes.

Cheap shoes aren’t good for your feet. They screw up your posture, wear out quickly, and hurt your toes.

I buy expensive shoes, not due to any kind of extravagance, but rather because, on the contrary, they’re a better deal. They last longer, look better, and feel better. And they give your feet more support.

I do however buy cheap books, because cheap  – like the dead canary in the mine shaft – can, at least with books, indicate something very important.

Many cheap books are of course cheap for a reason. Their covers may be torn to rat shit, or their texts smeared with florescent pink highlighter ink. They may also be outdated. Fax machine manuals, for example, or 1970s computer language textbooks won’t cost you much. Nor will they serve a practical purpose, save perhaps for stopping a few doors.

Some cheap books though are worth more than you pay for them, their very cheapness a flag for as yet unseen value; an opportunity awaiting those smart enough to conceive of new collecting ideas.

In fact, cheap is precisely what you want if you collect books: untilled ground deep with grain nobody else has thought to harvest.  Unmatched is the joy of scoping out used book store shelves and church bazaar sales in search of value that others have yet to comprehend.

Identifying what you deem important and making the case for its importance, this is how great collectors cement their reputations.

With enough money, anyone can buy a great Hemingway collection, but what an utterly uninspired and unoriginal pursuit.  Yes, perhaps when he was in his twenties, and few had recognized his talent, then maybe collecting him would have been daring; but certainly not now.

Incunabula for example, or Modern First Editions – these were once cheap; once, nobody paid them mind. It took Duff Gordon and Thomas J. Wise respectively to see, expound upon and convince others of the merits of these items; to elucidate their value. In just such a way much of the history of book collecting consists of smart collectors bringing attention to books previously overlooked.


Canadian books are cheap; in some cases dirt cheap.

This is probably due to what writer, editor and collector John Metcalf identifies as the small pond syndrome. Hardly anyone collects Canadian. With demand light and supply relatively heavy, prices naturally are low.

Still, a case can be made for collecting a surprising number of Canadian books. Many are undervalued I think, and, in some cases, extremely so.  During the past year I have conducted a series of interviews with publishers for a podcast I host called The Biblio File. Each features a specific publishing house. Focus is placed on books and series, designers and authors who have produced work that can be rewarding to collect.

From these interviews, and various related bibliographies and histories, here is an annotated list of Canadian book collecting ideas. I’ve broken ‘Canadian’ down into the following two main categories, Design and Content, under which I discuss designers, authors, series, publishers, and lists.


I start here because I think that the concept of ‘book as object’, though important in the past, will – now that ebooks have cemented a grip on the market – assume even more currency in the future, and also because in the 20th century, Canadian publishing’s greatest strength was in design.


Frank Newfeld has been called ‘the most productive and creative of all Canadian book designers.’  He has designed over 650 books. His creativity, if awards prove anything, is unparalleled.

He is perhaps best known for what he calls his ‘extended preliminaries’:  pages designed to introduce, welcome or acclimatize the reader to what the writer is about to say in the book. Newfeld took this concept from the movies. Two in particular were important: Around the World in Eighty Days and The Man with the Golden Arm – the former for the way in which it incorporated names of cast members into a ‘superb’ flow along with artwork,  the latter for how it built mood.

There is tremendous fun, and frivolity, in Newfeld’s prelims; they remind one of Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi’s buildings – which I love as much for their sheer fantastical impracticality as anything else.  Looking at Gaudi’s weird shaped windows and convoluted arched ceilings you just know that anyone with cost-savings on the mind would, had they seen them, have headed immediately in the opposite direction. They are so beautifully anti-efficient, so different from your typical functional downtown pile, that they leap out in ways that are supremely joyful.

Executed in a time and a place (McClelland & Stewart in the late 1950s) where the bottom line didn’t rule, Newfeld’s preliminary pages graphically introduce the reader to the writer by means of clever word and image play,  repeating motifs and differing weights, colours and textures of paper.  One of the first examples was in a book entitled Dynamic Decade: The Evolution and Effects of the Oil Industry in Alberta. It features a series of oil rig images growing from small to large as the pages are turned. Another plays with Irving Layton’s balls – Balls of a One Armed Juggler.  Bold and brassy like the author, the book’s cover replicates Layton’s devilish image in shades of red, black and gold. These colours play prominently in two other prelim’ed Layton books, Red Carpet for the Sun and The Swinging Flesh. The three titles represent a high point in Newfeld’s career, I think, marrying as they do great design with outstanding content (Carpet won the GG Award for poetry in 1960).

In fact the whole period between 1958 and 1963 sees a truly extraordinary explosion of colour and creativity from Newfeld.  Poetry gets special treatment.  The ‘Design for Poetry’ series (Rivers Among Rocks by Ralph Gustafson,  The Spice Box of Earth by Leonard Cohen, 1961; The Chequered Shade: Poems by Roy Daniells, 1963, and With the Zodiak, by Phyllis Gotlieb, 1964), for example,  had a huge impact on Canadian book design, one that hasn’t been replicated since according to Tim Inkster, a great book designer and publisher in his own right.  Sheila Watson’s Double Hook (Newfeld’s favourite cover), and Mad Shadows and Tete Blanche by Marie-Claire Blais, all came from this period; all wear powerful, striking covers, and contain memorable, distinctive imagery.  All are worth owning.

Newfeld’s prodigious output bleeds over into many genres. For organization’s sake, we’ll save mention of them for when the appropriate collecting category comes up. But before leaving, it’s worth mentioning  Newfeld’s favourite book. The Grasshopper, Games Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits, (University of Toronto Press, 1978) is filled with illustrations exhibiting his familiar use of dots and insecty lines. There’s even full frontal male nudity to admire on one page.  The book itself was designed by Will Reuter (owner of the Aliquando press ).

Allan Fleming, famed for his flow-on CN Rail logo, was another accomplished book designer;  in fact his Economic Atlas of Ontario won the grand prize at the Leipzig International Bookfair in 1970. Other designers whose work I admire and think worth collecting include Glenn Goluska (I particularly like his Ten Poems by Norm Sibum), Gordon Robertson (for the way he plays with type sizes and geometric shapes: see D.G. Jones’s Balthazar and Other Poems), and Dean Allen. But the point here is that there are many great book and type designers in Canada, past and present. Robert Ried, Carl Dair, Peter Cocking, Alan Brownoff, Scott Richardson: it’s just a question of finding one who excites you.

Look through Robert Bringhurst’s The Surface of Meaning, Books and Book Design in Canada for a start. Not only is it, in itself, a beautifully designed book, it contains hundreds of book images, plus, at the back, a comprehensive listing of Alcuin Book Design Award winners.  Bringhust incidentally, is himself an accomplished poet and book designer. He wrote the authoritative Elements of Typographic Style.  I would also recommend that all “collectors of Canadian” subscribe to, and collect, The Devil’s Artisan, `A Journal of the Printing Arts’ published twice annually by Tim Inkster at the Porcupine’s Quill. Over the years it has published stories and interviews featuring many of the designers I’ve been referring to. And finally the Canadian Design Resource website at is full of helpful book and magazine graphics.

If you love older books, Thoreau Macdonald and his father, group of seven member J.E.H. , might be of interest. They designed many Canadian books during the 1920s and 1930s. Thoreau was colour-blind and so drew mainly in black and white. His work, according to Joan Murray in the Canadian Encyclopedia, typifies this whole period of Canadian illustration. As she puts it “Certain technical mannerisms characterized his work: skies are always a series of parallel horizontal lines; clouds are simplified amoeboid shapes; trees look like the skeletons of conch shells; and his animals recall the art of the ancient Near East, appearing full face or, more usually, in profile. In general his subjects recalled his father’s, but he favoured Ontario farmland.”  One Thoreau high point is the 1938 illustrated edition of Maria Chapdelaine, published by MacMillan.



Indian File Series

Last summer I trucked down to Hamilton, Ontario to interview Dr. Carl Spadoni at McMaster University. Carl co-compiled a bibliography of McClelland & Stewart Imprints (published by ECW in 1994). I talked to him as part of the aforementioned Biblio File podcast series on publisher histories. During our conversation he mentioned the Indian File books that M&S published during the 1940s and 1950s. Damned if I didn’t find one the day after I met him, in Kitchener at A Second Look Books: Robert Finch’s The Strength of the Hills (1948). Unable to stop myself, I’ve since bought four more of the nine books that make up the series, including the first, Roy Daniells’s, Deeper into the Forest, published in 1948, the last, John Glassco’s The Deficit Made Flesh (1958), and one of the three in the series that won the GG Award for poetry, James Wreford Watson’s Of Time and the Lover (1950). According to the Historical Perspectives on Canadian Publishing website: “The series title is a description of the publishing process; the books were released one at a time or single file, over the decade. Perhaps taking a cue from the marketing strategy contained in the title, typographer and designer Paul Arthur (1924-2001) adapted Northwest Coast and Plains indigenous motifs for the cover designs. Four separate designs were created and these were repeated, using different colours, for the entire series. Published in print runs of 400 copies, the texts were initially printed in Bodoni type, a design created by Giambattista Bodoni in 1788.”

Penguin Extraordinary Canadians

Several years ago, at the Blue Metropolis writers festival in Montreal,  I was introduced to a new series published by Penguin Canada called Extraordinary Canadians; 18 biographies that reinterpret important Canadian figures for a contemporary audience by pairing well-known Canadian writers with significant historical, political and artistic figures from 1850 onwards. At the time I interviewed Nino Ricci on Pierre Trudeau, M.G. Vassanji on Mordecai Richler and Margret MacMillan on Stephen Leacock. Needless to say an obsession to own, read, and interview all of the authorsof the books, quickly took hold.

Last year it was Jane Urquhart, on her response to Lucy Maud Montgomery. On the cover Lucy sports a quite stunning looking lid. In fact, all books in the series wear spiffy looking jackets. Lush oil portraits, mostly, of the people portrayed within.  These volumes are smartly produced. Solid black cloth boards decorated with orange and white lettering and a cute little circled penguin on the front cover, complemented by regal red and other coloured paste down end papers. Anita Kuntz designed the Montgomery headgear. I’m quite partial to the Carl Shinkeruk’s illustration of Norman Bethune too.  The series’s look was designed by a firm called Soapbox.

New Canadian Library

The idea of placing illustrations of authors on the front covers of their books isn’t new. McClelland and Stewart’s New Canadian Library paperback series started off this way in 1957. Our friend Frank Newfeld played an important role here. Despite their differing styles, he drew most of the first 50-100 portraits. First editions of these books go for a meager $3-5. One way to identify them quickly is by their $1 list price on the front covers. They’re cheap and they contain much of what many consider to be the ‘best’ Canadian fiction ever written. What more could you want?

Centennial Library

Speaking of Newfeld, M&S, and cheap, there is the Canadian Centennial Library, a series of nine medium quarto-sized books published in 1965-66. I see them as a sort of Canadian Britain in Pictures. BIP was designed both to boost morale in the face of a menacing Adolf Hitler during the early 1940s, and to record the British way of life. The Centennial Library served both as celebration to mark an important time in the history of Canada, and to capture a slice of what it meant to be Canadian. The books are colourful, written by some of the country’s best known authors, including Pierre Burton and Peter Gzowski, well designed, and in one case in particular, exquisitely printed ( in Italy by Arnoldo Mondadori: Great Canadian Painting).


I’ve already mentioned the Alcuin Awards for Canadian Book Design.  A grouping of first prize winners over the years (the awards were inaugurated in 1981), across all of the various award categories,  would constitute a stunning collection; as would all winners  in any one of these vertical classes:  Limited Editions, Poetry, Prose Fiction, Prose Non-Fiction, Prose Non-Fiction Illustrated, Pictorial Books, or Children’s Books.


A less common enterprise involves collecting by publisher.  If the idea is to acquire everything published, then a “small’ publisher is probably the way to go. Based on their performances over the years at the Alcuins, and elsewhere, plus the fact that they consistently produce desirable books, I’d recommend four houses. Tim and Elke Inkster’s Porcupine’s Quill, Coach House, Andrew Steeve’s Gaspereau Press, and Jan and Crispin Elsted’s Barbarian Press.  Gaspereau has only been in business since 1997 so it might be the easiest for the ‘completionist’ to tackle. The others were established in the 1960s and 1970s. Regardless, it would be wise to put in a standing order for everything that comes off your press of choice.

Unlike the others, Barbarian is not so much a commercial as a fine press. Its offerings are less frequent and, for good reason, significantly more expensive.  Before leaving publishers, I should also mention Lock’s Press in Kingston. Margaret Lock has a reputation as a great printer and teacher.  Canada’s own Clare Van Vliet if you will. For the amount of time, thinking, effort, love, expertise and attention that go into her books and pamphlets, they are well worth the money.  If fine press printing appeals to you, I should finally mention the Grimsby Wayzgoose Anthologies.  Here, for about $100 you get representative samples, bound together in hardcover, from all printer/participants at these annual fine press gatherings.


I’ve spent more time on design than I’m going to on content simply because I think that design is where Canadian books stand out, and that this is where book collecting is headed.  It’s not a sweeping dismissal of what Canadian authors may or may not have written, rather a collector’s judgment. That said, any Canadian author with a sizeable following, particularly an international one, is, I’d say, from a strictly monetary perspective, a decent collecting bet. Translation: it may take a hundred years instead of two to three hundred to break even or see a small profit from your investments in their books.


In fiction, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje fit this bill; no real news here. Short story writers Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, and on the speculative side, perhaps David Bezmozgis. Poets are a tougher sell. Leonard Cohen, yes (his contribution to the aforementioned Poetry in Design series goes for five to six times what the others do). Other than that, even Irving Layton who many (myself included) consider to be Canada’s best poet, still doesn’t fetch much (yes, there is value here, so yes  this is a buy recommendation).  Just for fun, I like two penny stock poets: because they’re good and young.  Michael Lista’s first collection is Bloom; and Zach Wells’s second: Track and Trace.

Neither of the two Canadian authors I find most interesting wrote fiction. But both Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye marked their respective fields of study in ways few others, Canadian or not, can match; as a result both bear attention. In fact, now that we’re on him, Frye once identified a handful of what he considered to be true central, ‘mythical’ Canadian poems, among them

D.C. Scott’s “Piper of Arll”

Leo Kennedy’s “Words for a Resurrection”

Margaret Avisons’s “Neverness”

Irving Layton’s “Cold Green Element”

Douglas LePan’s “Idyll”

Wilfred Watson’s “Canticle of Darkness”

P.K. Page’s “Metal and Flower”

Acquiring first editions of the books these poems first appeared in would prove rewarding, I think. In any event, first, early, prize-winning and signed books by any of these authors should be a fairly safe investment, i.e., again, they shouldn’t go down in price.  As always, the cardinal rule remains: buy what you love, and then spend the rest of your life building the case.


Though the production values of books published by this no-frills house weren’t terribly high, the quality of their content, and the role its principals played in fostering a ‘made in Canada’ form of poetry, makes Contact Press (1952-67) a worthy target for collectors.

Founded by Louis Dudek, Raymond Souster and Irving Layton, Contact served as a kind of bridge between commercial and experimental poetry in Canada. According to Michael Gnarowski who wrote a brief history and checklist of the Press in 1970, it gave modernism an outlet here. After time teaching in New York, Dudek brought poetry by Charles Olson and Cid Corman, and a handful of little magazines back with him to Montreal. These provided the impetus to move forward; the goal of the new press would be to publish a new kind of poetry that at the time wasn’t getting ink this side of the border.

Throughout its first five years of existence Contact primarily published the work of its founders. But it went on, during the course of its final ten years, to become the most important Canadian small press of its time. It published most major Canadian poets of the period, and transformed literary life in Canada through its promotion of many different poetic styles. As Gnarowski puts it, ‘Contact was a self-financed act of faith on the part of its founders. While its main thrust was in publishing the new work of individual poets, it produced a milestone anthology, Canadian Poems 1850-1952, co-edited by Dudek and Layton, in 1952, and an avant-garde manifesto of young poets published as New Wave Canada: The New Explosion in Canadian Poetry (1966).’ These and other Contact books aren’t  inexpensive, ( a good copy, meaning very good +, of the press’s first book, Cerberus, goes for about $150) but, given their influence, and our focus on value, well worth the investment.

Contact writers included F.R. Scott, an important early ‘modern,’ Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, and George Bowering.


Despite what you may think of them  – that they’re simply marketing exercises, reflective of the preferences or tastes of biased juries-de-jour – prizes do typically, at least in their short lists, isolate much of what is good in any given year’s output.  “The rest,” as Giller Prize founder Jack Rabinovitch once put it to me, “is a crap shoot.”

I know someone who has for decades bought signed copies of the Booker short list. As a result he now has a very valuable collection. The same thing could, without too much struggle, be done with the Giller or the Griffin Prizes, they being relative newcomers. If you’d bought the Giller short list last year, for instance, you’d have a first of Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists, already one of the most storied tomes in Canadian book history. It now sells for north of $500.

The GGs, on the other hand, have been going since 1936, which renders the short-list exercise a tad onerous.  But collecting winners-only is do-able. I’ve spent the past several years going at it, with considerable success.  I can’t say I’ve read all, or even half of them, but I can attest to the pleasure of owning these books, and concur with John Meier when he says in his gorgeously designed (Alan Brownoff) catalogue Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction Collection that the collection “…represents most of the great Canadian authors of the twentieth century…and thus gives a fascinating perspective on the history of printing and publishing in Canada.” It is particularly pleasing when great or important writing meets outstanding design, which I think is resolutely the case with Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman (winner of the GG Award for English Fiction in 1971).

Finally , and not just because he’s connected with this magazine, John Metcalf’s Century List strikes me as a smart one to chase down.  Metcalf is one of the few men of letters in Canada who puts his money where his mouth is. Not only has he edited most every Canadian short story writer of note, he has probably read more Canadian short stories than anyone else on the planet.  So too, has he collected more Canadian books than most of us will even see in our lifetimes. Few are as well qualified then to pick a list of short story collections better suited for collection.  I’m just sorry I won’t be around 50 years hence to see how all of his picks pan out. For now, though, they’re cheap. And if they don’t appreciate, who cares? There are enough good stories represented to appeal to just about everyone.


I started off this piece writing about the importance of paying more to buy good shoes, suggesting that, in the long run, they’re a bargain. I’d like to finish by suggesting that buying and collecting good books can be just as functional. Not only does it send a message to the publishing world that beautiful objects matter, it also helps keep alive the legacies and lessons provided by some great twentieth-century Canadians who together have contributed much to the art, craft and discipline of book design. By valuing the efforts of their labours we both help to preserve and personally benefit from an important part of Canadian culture. We also support a struggling species: the used antiquarian bookstore, one whose demise, if it ever happens, would seriously diminish community cultural life all across the country.

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