Canada’s Hidden Literary Powerhouse: Your Guide To The Best Massey Lectures

The Massey Lectures are one of the most acclaimed lecture series in North America. Created in 1961, this annual lecture series features one distinguished thinker per year from fields as diverse as ecology, sociology, politics, and the physical sciences. Each year, one of these great minds delivers a 5-part lecture series on ideas relevant both within their field and the contemporary world. These lectures are broadcast on the CBC and published in book format by the House of Anansi Press.

We’re now approaching 60 years of Massey lectures, with some of the greatest lectures from the series rising to such acclaim you probably don’t even know they’re Canadian. This list breaks down eight gems of the series, each one full of mind-expanding information and inspiring critical takes. Read them in book format, or head to the CBC archive for the audio versions.

1962: Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination
If you grew up in Canada, you might have read excerpts from Frye’s The Educated Imagination in high school English. Frye is today considered one of the great literary theorists of the 20th century. Part of a philosophical tradition carried through the works of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, Frye was a master of identifying archetypal frameworks and mythic narratives in literature, and explaining how contemporary works remodelled these ancient imaginative strains. In The Educated ImaginationFrye makes an argument for the value of literature in the modern world, and sets out a model for how educators can engage students with a body of classic works that have come to define human thought. This is one of those inspiring books that will lead you to a lot of others.

1967: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Conscience for Change
Martin Luther King delivered this lecture series in 1967, in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement and only a few months before his death. As you might expect, the lecture series deals intensely with the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, but is not only limited to race relations. Instead, the series deals with how conscience can be employed in activism in both specific and general terms, detailing examples from the Black Power movement and the Vietnam War. King also speaks on how youth can be engaged in activism and the importance of nonviolence in protest. Reading this text provides a window into the thought of one of the greatest civil rights leaders in human history, and one that may be all the more relevant today in the stunning lack of a leader matching him.

1977: Claude Levi-Strauss’sMyth and Meaning
Claude Levi-Strauss was a pioneer of structural anthropology. This field blends sociology with psychology to investigate foundational commonalities across the world’s cultures. The field argues that all human societies, though disparate in wealth, are equitable in value, and provides a methodology by which anthropologists can dissect cultures and arrive at the reasons they exist as they do. In Myth and Meaning Levi-Strauss provides an understanding of myth as more than compendia of fictional stories or religious literature, but as bodies of functional narratives that contain the core metaphors of the cultures that produce them. It’s an excellent read for anyone who thinks there’s more to Little Red Riding Hood than a wolf in grandma’s nightie.

1985: Doris Lessing’s Prisons We Choose to Live Inside
A theorist, philosopher and poet, Doris Lessing is one of the most prolific and acclaimed writers of the twentieth century. A student of modern history’s record of war, genocide, diaspora and migration,  Lessing uses the concept of ‘prisons we choose to live inside’ to explain the notion of generational trauma and the discursive consequences of national violence. In this book, Lessing makes a case for the ‘soft sciences’ of social psychology and anthropology as the crucial frameworks by which we can reframe our histories and positively manifest our own futures. Bridging the gap between introspective prompts for self-help and rigorous social theory, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside is a stirring read from a mind on the frontier of human thought.

1988: Noam Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions. Thought Control in Democratic Societies
Noam Chomsky is an American linguist more famous as a popular voice of liberal dissent against U.S. foreign policy. In Necessary Illusions, Chomsky argues the mass media of democratic nations such as the United States and Canada are essentially ideological tools that discipline the society and enforce regularity, a necessary pursuit of governments which cannot use force against their own people. Chomsky’s thought was a landmark change in how we look at media today— remember, this was before Netflix and the 24 hour news cycle got a hold of you. If you’ve ever thought you’re being brainwashed by the TV (and you are), this is the book to prove it.

2003: Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative
“The truth about stories is that’s all we are.” Prominent Canadian novelist and indigenous scholar Thomas King’s Massey lecture series is a poetic exploration of First Nations oral narratives, and through them a beautifully woven history of indigenous and colonial relations in Canada. Both poignant and humorous, these lecture series show Davis in his natural element as he evokes how stories are so central to who we are that they end up constituting the very bases of our identities. Stories shape and change lives. As we are all part of the story of our nation and world, we are also the ones who get to decide how it is written.

2009: Wade Davis’ The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.
Wade Davis is a Colombian-Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist. He is also the National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence. His Massey lecture series is a sprawling anthropological argument for the maintained vigor and aptitude of the world’s ancient and indigenous cultures. The series takes its title from just one example, the Polynesian wayfinders, who developed the ability to precisely navigate across thousands of kilometres of open ocean in small canoes before Europe had even begun its expansion into the new world. In this book Wade proposes the concept of the ethnosphere, a web of human cultures across the globe, depleting even faster than the biosphere. He argues for the necessary preservation of these cultures, and their wisdom, if our ‘modern world’ is to survive its current crises.

2016: Jennifer Welsh’s The Return of History: Conflict, Migration and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century
The Return of History is a return to social responsibility as a requirement for economic and political models. The title is a response to Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay “The End of History” which argued that liberal democracies such as Canada and the United States were perfect governments, the endpoint of civilization’s advancement. Recent history speaks otherwise, illuminating how western democracy is just one more form of government flawed by human greed, violence, and sectarianism. Welsh breaks down the ways geopolitics governed by Western powers are just as problematic as any others, giving readers a crash-course in contemporary geopolitics both despairing and tentatively hopeful for a better future. History has returned, and continues, just as imperfect as ever.

Zach Buck

Zach Buck

Zach Buck is a writer and editor currently living in South Korea. He serves as the official editor of Spatial Studies magazine HEADREST. In 2016 he released experimental digital archive game house.xct_ with Other Families, and it can be read about on otherfamilies.ca.

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