On the Night Table of Allan Levine
Author and historian Allan Levine
Great cities can offer hope and redemption as well as despair and defeat. They are unpredictable, wondrous and devastating, often all at the same moment in time — “living and breathing organisms,” as Peter Ackroyd puts it in his mammoth London: The Biography (2000).
Wandering through the streets of the city, and back and forth through time, Ackroyd concludes that laws and growth cannot be controlled. That is what has made London so vital and enticing, but equally as disappointing and, on occasion, dangerous. I have always enjoyed grand and sweeping historical narratives, and Ackroyd does not disappoint in this marvelous book. It is especially a great read before a visit to the U.K., and it is sure to let you see London from a fresh perspective.
I was so inspired after I finished Ackroyd’s study about a year and a half ago that it led me to my next book project. If someone can write a biography of London, my editor at Douglas & McIntyre and I reasoned, why not take the same approach with a Canadian city? And that’s why I now find myself immersed in all things Toronto, all day, every day.
The city that everyone else in Canada loves to hate has had its fair share of chroniclers. Two books that have been excellent sources as well as good reads are Immigrants: A Portrait of the Urban Experience, 1890–1930 (1975), by Robert Harney and Harold Troper, and Toronto's Girl Problem: The Perils and Pleasures of the City, 1880–1930 (1995), by Carolyn Strange.
Harney — who passed away far too young, and with whom I had the privilege of working as a graduate student in Toronto in the late seventies — and Troper offer an enlightening examination through photographs and primary documents of the development of Toronto as an immigrant city and a reminder of just how unwelcoming and intolerant Canada use to be. Strange’s fascinating book is a treasure trove of stories on the dark side of Toronto and the various problems encountered by single women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Winnipeg historian Allan Levine’s most recent book is King: A Life Guided By The Hand of Destiny (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011), which won the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction at the 2012 Manitoba Book Awards.