I am reading Conrad Black’s mighty Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present. It has much to recommend it. But I have a few quibbles, as you will see.
Why I am annoyed with Rise to Greatness?
1) It is not a history of Canada, it is a history of the Prime Ministers of Canada. Black focuses almost exclusively on leaders and leadership; outside events are related insofar as they shed light on the situation of Prime Ministers and the actions they took to handle their crises. One can learn a lot by this method about how leadership has mattered: MacDonald’s handling of the simultaneous crises of Métis rebellion and deliberate attempts by rich Americans to undermine the financing of the CPR is well told.
But a history of the Prime Ministers of Canada is not the same as the history of Canada. Black is relentlessly elitist in this sense, and has every right to be. But calling this a history of Canada when this is a history of Canadian political leadership, almost exclusively at the federal level, is misleading.
2) In the vein, the books wants charts, graphs, or tables: population growth, railway growth, GDP per capita, family size, immigration, electoral maps and other basic factors are utterly missing. That is not the story he is telling.
3) Finally, he ought to have set the book before Barbara Amiel, his wife, and asked her to read it. Or someone who could speak plainly to him. Here is a sample – there are many – of what I am referring to:
Lord Curzon (1859-1925), the foreign secretary – who had been sent as the brightest of the Souls (an elite British group of talented and stylish aristocrats that included Tennants, Wyndhams, Lyttletons, Asquiths, Coopers and Balfour) to be, at forty, the youngest viceroy of India ever – had just been passed over by King George V as prime minister (to succeed the terminally ill Andrew Bonar law) for Stanley Baldwin, whom Curzon described, with some reason, but typically, as of “the most profound insignificance”. (p.518)
I still have 501 pages to go. <sigh>
Conrad Black may well deserve to belong among the talented and stylish aristocrats whom he admires, and possibly envies, and whose literary and historical writings surely merit inclusion in the pantheon of the truly accomplished of Canadian letters (who, by that way, do not include Margaret Atwood, and most of those wet Toronto leftists held up for our admiration by a fawning press no longer owned by him), yet his inclusion in this august company is held back not merely by the envious agitations of the second-rate, but by a tendency on his part observed by many – not wholly without justice – to write annoyingly heavy books with sentences in need of emendation.