A hit and two misses

Too busy writing until recently, I finally found some time to read. Two out of the three books I just finished were disappointing. The first is by Gord Pitts: Fire in the Belly: How Purdy Crawford Rescued Canada and Changed the Way We Do Business. Here was a case where I was a fan of both the writer and the subject yet came away empty.

My first complaint is in some ways petty. Normally, subjects are referred to by their surnames. Pitts didn’t do that. Sometimes he called him “Purdy” which is a tad too friendly for me. Sometimes he called him “Crawford.” Sometimes he referred to him using both “Purdy” and “Crawford” – in the same paragraph. That’s poor editing and, after a while, just plain irritating.

Second, I was looking forward to understanding at last exactly how Crawford solved the problem of $35 billion in third-party asset-backed paper that suddenly was worthless in 2007. I’ve never understood how that worked, and after all, this is the supposed core of the book. After I read that section I was no further ahead on that nor how he “changed the way we do business.” I agree that Crawford should be celebrated as a lawyer, leader in corporate governance, and mentor, but the promise of the book’s title isn’t sufficiently backed up.

My second disappointment was Allan Levine’s Toronto: A Biography of a City. The book starts in the dim past with Etienne Brule, wanders its way through the nineteenth century, and goes right up to modern times. Everybody and their uncle contributed, read, or helped on this book, which is a daunting read at 496 pages. (Levine kindly cites my book on the Eatons.) Even so, Levine’s coverage of the powerful individuals and institutions based in Toronto seems unusually limited. Toronto is, after all, the financial capital of Canada.

There is, for example, precious little on the Big Five Banks or the people who run them, arguably the country’s single most powerful oligopoly. Nor is their much on investment bankers, mutual fund companies, insurance firms or any aspect of financial services. As for the Toronto Stock Exchange, Levine even gets the location wrong, saying it’s at King and Bay although it moved from Bay Street in 1985. And who, I’d like to know, has ever referred to the Eaton Centre as the Eaton’s Centre? 

A much more thorough and thoughtful book is Roy McMurtry’s Memoirs and Reflections. McMurtry takes the reader through an ever-changing Toronto and Ontario from his days on the University of  Toronto Varsity Blues, through his time as attorney general in the Bill Davis government, to his years as Chief Justice of Ontario. Despite its prodigious 534 pages, if I had been the editor, I wouldn’t have deleted a word.

McMurtry’s advice after a lifetime of service and leadership is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Other authors should heed those words.

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