Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Doug Ford's reading List

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Ever since Toronto Councillor and Mayoral advisor Doug Ford's humiliating revelation of the seemingly boundless extent of his illiteracy, the city has resonated with condemnation and ridicule. A campaign has even been instituted to draft renowned author (and Ford target) Margaret Atwood to run for Mayor.

In response, some commentators have taken up the didactic challenge of expanding Ford's awareness of Canadian literature. CBC Books blogger Erin Balser has, for example, suggested Ford read a diverse list of Canadian books, among them Brian Lee O'Malley's Toronto-set Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series and urbanist Jane Jacobs' classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Similarly, social network Zoomers.ca has invited members to submit reading recommendations for Ford.

My quibble with these reading lists is that they are not sufficiently Toronto-focused, nor politically attuned, to fully achieve their purpose. And so, in hopes of expanding the Ford brothers' literacy -- intellectually as well as administratively -- I present Doug Ford's Reading List, a kind of primer for political perspicacity:

Jonathan Cleaned Up—Then He Heard A Sound (Annikins). In Robert Munsch's illustrated classic, a young boy whose living room wall starts sliding open every few minutes to accommodate a rush of commuters is surprised to learn his Yonge Street apartment building has been turned into a subway station. When he travels to City Hall to complain, the mayor tells him, “If the subway stops there, then it’s a subway station!” adding, “Our computer says it’s a subway station and our computer is never wrong.” When Jonathan discovers that the massive, costly machine doesn’t actually work, he convinces the city’s elderly, overworked clerk to relocate the subway station—right in the middle of the mayor’s own office.

Dead Politician Society (ECW, 2010). In the opening pages of Robin Spano's hilarious send-up of Toronto's political landscape, Toronto’s blowhard mayor collapses and dies in a pool of his own vomit, done in by a radical group calling itself the Society for Political Utopia. Within days the mysterious society dispatches five more Toronto politicians, leaving a business card on the body of each victim that reads simply, “Your death will be your greatest public service.”

In Public Works (Pedlar Press, 2004), a collection of poems about the intersection of civic ambition and everyday citizenship, Ronna Bloom reminds us that cities are places where ordinary people worry about hydro bills, run bathwater into their neighbours’ drains and are cosseted to sleep by the soundless reverberation of subway trains in tunnels only a few metres beneath their beds. In a city whose citizens are subsumed beneath layers of bureaucracy—

Tax forms, bills,
councillors’ and ministers’ happy pamphlets in the mail,
phonebooks, pleas to donate [...]
the electric grid running wired through my veins, sewage
pipes muscling down with their shit, transit working
its worm in a map of arteries

—surely it is the job of municipal politicians to make sense of this twisted tangle, to be able to distinguish self-aggrandizement and city building and, above all, to make what is public work?

In Civil Elegies (Anansi, 1968; 1972), Dennis Lee's Governor General's Award-winning urban audade, Lee laments the ways Toronto has failed to live up to the promise of the 1837 Rebellion, writing that "in the city I long for men complete / their origins" and assessing the implications of administrative short-sightedness:

by moments it takes us in, each one for now
a passionate civil man, until it
sends us back to the acres of gutted intentions,
back to the concrete debris, to parking lots and the four-square tiers
of squat and righteous lives.

Jonathan Bennett's Civil and Civic is not wholly Toronto-focused but nonetheless offers a probing analysis of the kinds of tensions between individual ambition and collective will that currently rend Toronto. In the title poem he describes a protest turned violent and, in another poem, "Travelers," seems to sum up both cause and effect, writing, "I saw / your ruins, guessed at the history, / the razing, the same. I remember."

Individual poems in other works extend these readings, adding historical perspective on municipal short-sightedness. In the Depression-era Queen City Dorothy Livesay depicts a Toronto gone cold-hearted and attacks 'Toronto the Good' with savage irony:

Take off the lid, scatter the refuse far,
Tear down the “WELCOME” from the city-hall.
For you’re not welcome, vagabond, nor you
Old man, nor you, farmlabourer, with sun
Still burning in your face. Burn now with shame
Take to yourself the bread ticket, the bed
On John Street—fifteen cents, GOOD CLEAN
And pluck out all the hunger from your brain.

and Raymond Souster, in his own Queen City, writes of Toronto:

Strange city,
cold, hateful city,
that I still celebrate and love
while out there somewhere
you are carefully working at my death...

For the rest of us, of course, there is still hope, and to this end Torontonians should not overlook Rosemary Aubert's Harlequin romance Firebrand (1985) in which a City Hall librarian has a torrid affair with the City's charismatic, handsome, left-leaning mayor. It need not be said, of course, that Aubert's Mayor does not close any branches.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris teaches in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada, where her work focuses on urban identity and the cultural significance of place. Her book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), has been shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literature.

Go to Amy Lavender Harris’s Author Page