Know It All

Finding the Impossible Country

By George Melnyk

by James H. Marsh
2022/$38.50/320 pp.

In the age of Google the idea of a Canadian encyclopedia seems a quaint relic. But when it was conceived by Edmonton publisher Mel Hurtig, it was a revolutionary concept. Hurtig was a devout Canadian nationalist with book-publishing savvy who wanted to make a big splash. In 1979, a year before Alberta’s 75th anniversary, Hurtig convinced the Alberta government to put in $3.4-million to cover development costs plus another $600,000 to purchase copies for schools across the country. That’s $4-million in total to subsidize one publishing project. Ah, those were the days!

James Marsh, a Toronto writer and editor, was hired as editor-in-chief. Marsh has now published a memoir that gives his side of the story. The book begins in childhood and progresses matter-of-factly throughout his life, but the encyclopedia project is the highlight for readers. Described by Hurtig as “the largest, most complicated book-publishing project in the history of Canada,” the Canadian Encyclopedia became the crowning glory of Hurtig’s publishing career and a huge commitment for Marsh, for which he justly received the Order of Canada. He describes the project itself as a way of shining a light on the country. He had to placate the egos of an advisory board of self-assured academics, while meeting the diverse needs and demands of a large editorial staff and several thousand contributing authors. All of this work was done manually because computers were rare and editorial software undeveloped. It was Marsh’s idea to turn the project into a multi-volume book of three million words, far beyond what had been first envisioned.

What Marsh prides himself on is keeping Hurtig’s “vehement economic nationalism” out of the encyclopedia and resisting any attempt to be “the mouthpiece” for the funder—the Government of Alberta. The result? Over 150,000 sets (463,000 volumes) were ordered for the first printing and most were sold by the end of 1985. A second, four volume edition came out in 1988 and was followed by a multi-volume Junior Encyclopedia of Canada. It was too much. In 1991 Hurtig was forced to close and sell his business to McClelland and Stewart in Toronto. Marsh was kept on at M&S to work on the encyclopedia. He oversaw its publication as a CD and then an online edition.

Only five of the 21 chapters in Know It All deal with Marsh’s work on the encyclopedia. The rest detail his life, which is not all that interesting until he becomes an editor and reveals the way he was treated in the publishing world. What is most valuable about this book is his narrative of a monumental publishing project conceived and executed in Alberta that then became a major contribution to national identity. His role was central.

George Melnyk’s latest book is Breaking Words (Bayeux Arts).


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