What makes Canada 'larger than life' and the key to compiling a great list

Drawing up lists is something Jane Farrow knows a lot about. We sat down with her to find out what goes into compiling a great list and to talk about The Book of Lists: Revised and Updated and Even More Canadian, which she edited with her radio producer colleague, Ira Basen.
Jane Farrow is the co-editor of "The Book of Lists." (Zoe Gemelli)

Every summer we look forward to compiling our Cross Country Checkup list of good reading. It's made up of suggestions from our listeners who phone in with book titles that have grabbed their attention. 

We only have two rules for our list: you have to be enthusiastic about the book and it has to be available either in print or electronic form.

Drawing up lists is something Jane Farrow knows a lot about. We sat down with her to find out what goes into compiling a great list and to talk about  The Book of Lists: Revised and Updated and Even More Canadian which she edited with her radio producer colleague, Ira Basen. 

The new book coming out in October is an update from the successful 2005 version, which was also co-edited by Amy Wallace and David Wallechinsky. This book featured materials from the original The Book of Lists (published in 1977), but with a more specific focus geared towards Canadians. 

Read our interview with Jane Farrow below: 
The Book of Lists: Revised and Updated and Even More Canadian comes out in October 2017. (Knopf Canada)

What are some of the new lists we can expect in the updated version of your book? 

The new content in this edition will include: 

  • People who defected to Canada
  • 14 essential Canadian plays by Daniel MacIvor and Daniel Brooks 
  • Sonya Rodriguez' myths about ballet dancers
  • Lynn Coady's 8 Canadian Eighties pop acts who are Eighties than the Eighties
  • 5 hits made without artists being in the same room
  • Things you didn't know about O Canada
  • Anna McGarrigle's mentions of weather and climate conditions in 10 McGarrigle songs
  • Naomi Duguid's 10 favourite cookbooks
  • Margaret Atwood's 10 annoying things to say to writers
  • 10 wild and woolly occurrences at Tim Hortons​

I'd say there's probably a good 50 per cent of the book that's new material. Some of the lists we took out because they felt a little old and stale. In order for our book to be unique, it made sense for us to do lists that were not so obvious. We were trying to use events and topics that people would find surprising.

​How did you make sure the lists you compiled would grab people's attention?

We don't have the celebrity culture in Canada that's on the scale of the United States. But we certainly have a lot of stars that are larger than life. Instead of actors who became politicians, we found sports heroes who became politicians. We have amazing lists about people going up against very extreme climate conditions. Expeditions which ended really badly. Canadians who lost a fortune — you don't have to be American to do that! We also got Derek Stoffel from the CBC to give a list of the essential items he needs as a foreign correspondent. And that's a great list. You want novelty, you want surprise, you want entertainment. 
Ira Basen also co-edited the newly revised "The Book of Lists."

How did you and your co-editor, Ira Basen, decide which lists to include in the updated version of this book? 

Well, he likes politics and history and sports. I like animals, people, food, health, music and the arts. There was really a lot of content there. It was obviously an honour to be asked to work on this book given how great the original is. It's so unusual. It's not a boring listing of the Top 10. It's anything but. It's got to have something unique about it. Something distinctive, a personal take or idiosyncratic and delve into something that's just not "Google-able." Like, you can't type in "Remarkable Occurrences of 1885." You know, funguses that changed history. It's a kind of way to organize humanity in a fresh and interesting way. 

You want novelty, you want surprise, you want entertainment. - Jane Farrow

What kinds of lists are you drawn to? 

I like lists made by people I like. For example, Cathal Kelly, who writes about sports for the Globe and Mail. He always makes it interesting, so we asked him to make a list and he came up with this amazing one about personalities in international soccer. I didn't know those people were so interesting! It takes someone who is a specialist in that topic to spare me going through the sports pages for days to sum up and synthesize who are the nine most interesting soccer players to look at.  
Why do you think people are so drawn to lists?

I think people are fundamentally interested in ranking. It's just the human condition. They really are inclined to want to see who's on top, and who's in the running. It's human curiosity. Obviously, it can really help you prioritize and make decisions.

Why was it important for you not to rank your lists in this book? 
As lists go, my general list making habits are pretty much, on any given day, lists of things to do, lists of things to buy, and lists of things to cook. I'm not a big ranker. I don't think top to bottom or best to worst. That's not interesting to me. I like idiosyncratic takes on people who really know their subjects really well. What they say is the most noteworthy.

Having something at the #1 spot is overrated. If there's a list of five really incredibly interesting things that have a very unusual theme that brings them together...that's a great list. It's just bringing you new information that's surprising and entertaining. 
And before I let you go, what book will you recommend for our annual list of summer reading?

The book that I've recently read that I couldn't put down is called The New Farm by Brent Preston. It's about his adventures in farming and it wrestles with all the challenges and ethical dilemmas in producing food in a healthy and sustainable way, and how hard that is. It's a really interesting insight to the food systems in Canada and we can always learn a lot more about how food is made and develop compassion and empathy for farmers. It's a great summer read, really entertaining and riveting in a narrative way. It's very well-written. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The Book of Lists: Revised and Updated and Even More Canadian (published by Knopf Canada) comes out in October 2017.


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