One morning in the late spring of 2008, Trevor J. Adams and Stephen Clare were enjoying their usual weekly “half-business/half-pleasure” coffee at the Trident Café and Bookstore in downtown Halifax, and enjoying even more their own noisy argument about best books. Today they were debating the relative merits of two iconic Nova Scotian-Canadian authors, Thomas Raddall and Alistair MacLeod.
Adams is the Editor of Halifax, an urban lifestyles magazine, while Clare, the former Books Editor of the defunct Halifax Daily News, is one of Halifax’s busiest freelancers.
While business had been the original rationale for their weekly coffee conversations, Clare and Adams had become friends as well. They’d shared their fears: Stephen about becoming a father again at 40, Trevor about whether he was ready for marriage. And they’d shared their passions, including the Montreal Canadiens, their favourite hockey team, and of course, their favourite books.
Partly because Adams’ soon-to-be wife was from Liverpool and partly because he himself could claim one of Raddall’s sons as his dentist, Adams confessed a “natural affinity” for the late Nova Scotia writer of popular historical fiction who had been a three-time winner of the Governor-General’s literary awards. Clare, on the other hand, a Montreal-born musician and freelance writer who’d moved to Halifax nine years before, was more partial to the cerebral, Cape Breton-born, Ontario-based MacLeod, whose No Great Mischief had won him the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Today’s argument had gone on long past the end of their coffees.
Which got Clare to thinking about an interview he’d done recently with music journalist Bob Mersereau concerning his 2007 book, The Top 100 Canadian Albums.
That was the beginning.
Next month, Nimbus will publish Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books, their rank-ordered compendium of the region’s best books “ever published.” The book, which will include reviews by either Clare or Adams of every one of the chosen books, will be illustrated with book covers and author photos, and feature essays as well as additional top-10 listings for everything from best French-language books, to aboriginal books, to books bearing the silliest titles (can you say Lobster in my Pocket?).
“I’m not naïve enough to think this will be the definitive word” on which is the absolute best, number-one-for-all-time Atlantic Canadian book ever written, Adams concedes. Even if their list simply provokes “a couple of good, knock-out donnybrooks” over which should have been judged best, adds Clare, he’ll consider theirs a job well done.
They concede the process of choosing the books wasn’t scientific.
In the beginning, Adams explains, they had some “pretty rigid” criteria—the author had to be from this region, or have spent a substantial amount of time here—but then they’d encounter a book that didn’t fit their criteria yet clearly belonged on the list and… well, the criteria became less rigid.
In the same way, while the list mostly represents a tallying of votes received, there are occasional books that made the list because the editors decided they belonged. “It’s called editorial discretion,” says Adams.
The two arbitrarily decided some books—cookbooks, for example—didn’t belong, while others—poetry collections, plays—did but would probably “drop off the bottom” of any broader list. So they established separate listings for them and asked experts to submit their choices.
Once they’d sorted out their parameters, they prepared an open-ended email and sent it to everyone they could think of—authors, critics, librarians, professors of Canadian literature and history, bookstore owners and, of course, readers—inviting them to compile their own personal top 10 lists. And then invited those people to forward the email on to others they thought might be interested in doing the same.
By the time it was over, they’d received 716 replies. One woman submitted her list and then wrote back the next day to revise it, and then twice more after that to revise her revisions. “How could I have possibly forgotten…?”
There were, of course, occasional efforts to rig the outcome. Clare recalls receiving 30 almost identically worded submissions, all from the same computer IP address and all listing only the same one book. “That just wasn’t on,” he says.
Adams and Clare compiled the more than 7,000 ballots cast for 2,000 different books (with votes coming from locals, expats and interested outsiders from 17 countries) and tallied up the votes to determine the rankings.
And the winner is…
Not so fast. The book doesn’t hit the bookstores until mid-October so their publishers at Nimbus—not surprisingly—are loath to let Clare and Adams give away too many secrets too soon. Nimbus is actually inviting readers to predict which will be the top five books when the list is finally unveiled. Those who guess correctly will be entered in a draw for a $100 gift certificate for—what else?—books. For details, go to www.nimbus.ca and select “Contests.”
That said, there are a few things Adams and Clare will confide.
First, of course, is the fact that both Raddall and MacLeod will make the top 100 list. Second, while you might quibble about the order, Adams says, you won’t be surprised by which books ended up in the top 10. Their order, he adds, is “exactly as the numbers came out. It was really only when we got to the bottom 50 where we asked ourselves, ‘Why does this book matter?’”
You probably also won’t be surprised to discover that there are common themes in the selected books, and that those themes include the importance of geography and natural setting.
Or that Atlantic Canadian authors are not only talented, they’re generous. “People like Lesley Choyce and Ami MacKay and David Adams Richards would get back to us,” Adams notes, “and ask, Have you thought about so-and-so, or so-and-so?”
More by luck than by design, he adds, the book “balanced out nicely. All four provinces are well represented. There is a balance of men and women; there are writers of colour.”
But taking the project from coffee-argument idea to finished book in just over a year, they admit, did become an all consuming project. Trevor even took the manuscript with him to Jamaica on his honeymoon despite promising not to. “Busted!” he jokes. Later, his wife woke him up one morning at three o’clock; he’d been talking in his sleep about Thomas Raddall. Clare says he ended up buying his postal delivery person a thank-you package of Tylenol to compensate for all the heavy books he’d had to deliver to him.
While Adams and Clare are still putting the final-final finishing touches on Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books, they admit they’re already considering another collaboration. “Something sports related,” Adams suggests. “That could be fun.”
Stephen Kimber, the author of one novel and seven books of nonfiction, is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. Full disclosure: he contributed his own top 10 list on the best “Historical Books of Atlantic Canada, Fictional and Not So…” to Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books.