Vital Reading

LRC contributors recommend eleven of today’s most interesting books

As part of the LRC’s special Vital Ideas for Canada editorial supplement, we asked a range of past magazine contributors to recommend a book particularly relevant or important today. The following are the full explanations for their choices.


Vital Civic Reading

Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder
by Ken Greenberg
Vintage Canada

Internationally respected architect and planner Ken Greenberg looks at what makes city environments contribute to well-being and prosperity, borrowing on the advice of experts like Jane Jacobs and equally from his long experience working in the world’s leading cities. He emphasizes the experience of the city from the street level and how we move through it on our daily rounds. As pressures for growth continue to challenge our major cities, it is important to understand what kind of physical development tends to work for the quality of people’s lives, and what doesn’t. Walking Home is an excellent guide to develop that understanding.

– Alan Broadbent

Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives
by Joseph Heath

As an incurable optimist about Canadian politics, I’m hoping the time has arrived for the ideas laid out in Enlightenment 2.0, the newest book by University of Toronto philosophy professor Joseph Heath. Many people reported to me that they were disheartened by some of the storylines in my own book, Shopping For Votes, and the extent to which marketing has dumbed down our discourse to wants not needs, and emotions over policy.  Maybe the country needs a good dose of Enlightenment 2.0—or at least a little more politics of thinking and a little less politics of feelings.

– Susan Delacourt


Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change
by Edmund Phelps
Princeton University Press

With inspired references to Beethoven, the Beatles, J. M. W. Turner, Lady Gaga, Velázquez, Voltaire, van Gogh and dozens of others, an octogenarian Nobel Prize-winning economist explains how the individualistic capitalism of the last 20 decades, which we have dangerously over-regulated in the last five, gave us unparalleled economic growth – and much more importantly, a chance for hundreds of millions of people to achieve Aristotle’s conception of the good life, which depends crucially on self-fulfillment through vitalism, the constant challenging of oneself with new initiatives and undertakings.

– William Watson

House of Debt:
How They (And You) Caused the Great Recession, 
And How We Can Prevent It From Happening Again
by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi University of Chicago Press

Many good books have been written by well known authors in recent years on the 2008 Great Recession. I recommend this one for a Vital Ideas reading list because it is the only book I am aware of that examines in detail the role of debt build up at the household level since 2000, in the US and abroad, on the severity of the recession and the weakness of the recovery. It challenges the global policy response which has focussed primarily on securing banking system stability, at the expense of highly levered lower and middle income people (a growing wealth gap). It recommends new financial instruments that better share economic risk between creditors and debtors.

– Kevin Page 

Vital Environmental Reading

The Once and Future World:
Nature As It Was, 
As It Is, As It Could Be
by J.B. MacKinnon
Random House

B. MacKinnon’s The Once and Future World is at once a personal elegy and a global wakeup call. Reexamining our changing relationship to the natural world over centuries in prose that is as rich in historical and scientific facts as it is in poetics, this book forces you to think, wonder and cry over what we as custodians of this planet have wrought upon it. It’s a must read for everyone, particularly in Canada, a country whose mythology is steeped in its wilderness but is currently better known internationally for its government’s contempt for nature and most things scientific.

– Kamal Al-Solaylee 

Why We Disagree about Climate Change:
Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity
by Mike Hulme
Cambridge University Press

 A book I think is extremely important on a topic of significant concern to Canada (and elsewhere) is Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree about Climate Change. Its importance lies in its brilliant and iconoclastic approach to climate change issues. After extensive analysis of the different positions on climate change, Hulme argues that “[solving] climate change should not be the focus of our efforts any more than we should be ‘solving’ the idea of human rights or liberal democracy. It really is not about stopping climate chaos. Instead, we need to see how we can use the idea of climate change—the matrix of ecological functions, power relationships, cultural discourses and material flows that climate change reveals—to rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic and personal projects over the decades to come.”

“We need to ask not what we can do for climate change,” Hulme proposes, “but to ask what climate change can do for us.”

 Perhaps needless to say, this type of approach has not been taken up strongly by the climate change policy community. I think it offers the opportunity to re-think, in exciting ways, climate change issues, and, in so doing, to transcend some of the same old polarized posturing that is so typical of this field.

– John Robinson


Vital International Reading


Reasoning with God:
Reclaiming Shari’ah in the Modern Age

by Khaled Abou El Fadl
Rowman & Littlefield

Fourteen years after 9/11, the relationship between Islam, Muslims and liberal democracy continues to be a source of deep debate and anxiety. In Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari’ah in the Modern Age, UCLA Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl writes a powerful and persuasive book that is part memoir, part scholarly analysis and part message to the perplexed. Essential reading for anyone interested in the relationship between Islam and modernity.

– Nader Hashemi


The Savage War:
The Untold Battles of Afghanistan

by Murray Brewster

This book poses vital questions about how and when we should go to war, addressing the political manoeuvring that preceded our engagement in Afghanistan, and whether the decision was made with enough gravity and forethought.

– Hannah Moscovitch


Vital Cultural Reading


24/7: Late Capitalism and
the Ends of Sleep

by Jonathan Crary

Crary’s argument, delivered in a series of measured but polemical paragraphs, is that sleep is the last public good, a form of human experience so far immune to the production/consumption cycles of capital transaction—but now subject to ever more subtle forms of technological manipulation. An urgent, funny and scary short book about the political stakes of daily life in the 21st century.

– Mark Kingwell


The Laughing One:
A Journey to Emily Carr

by Susan Crean
Harper Perennial

In 2001, Susan Crean, writer and cultural activist, published an astonishing act of creative nonfiction, The Laughing One: A Journey to Emily Carr, that employed several genres in one—travelogue, memoir, archival research, art history, speculative narrative and point-of-view journalism. Through these various lenses, Crean brings into focus an iconic figure in Canadian art whose importance still resonates in our time of feminism, cultural diversity, Aboriginal land claims, environmental activism and spiritual renewal. As Crean wrote in conclusion, “It is hard to tell where she [Emily Carr] leaves off and we begin.”

– Myrna Kostash