Putting a region in the context of family history

Bookmarks spotlights the personalities and published books of faculty, staff and alumni.

Today, English and Writing Studies professor emeritus Donald Hair, author of Souwesto Lives: John Hair and Alice Runnalls, answers questions on his ‘bookishness’ and writing.

His latest book – a “family history with a context” – places the lives of the author’s parents, John Hair and Alice Runnalls, at the centre of the narrative that explores the history and culture of Southwestern Ontario.

A specialist in Victorian literature, Hair is the author of a number of other books, including Browning’s Experiments with Genre; Robert Browning’s Language, Domestic and Heroic in Tennyson’s Poetry; Tennyson’s Language; The Dramatic Imagination of Robert Browning: A Literary Life (with Richard S. Kennedy); and Fresh Strange Music: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Language. He was the recipient of the Edward G. Pleva Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2001-02 as well as the OCUFA Teaching and Academic Librarianship Award in 1991.

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What book do we find you reading tonight?

The third volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate.

How you decide what to read? Reviews, word of mouth, maybe occasionally judge a book by its cover?

All of the above.

Name one book you wish you had written. And why.

Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, for its impact on understanding literature. Frye was one of my professors at Toronto nearly 60 years ago. He showed how the basic kinds of literature, tragedy, comedy, satire and romance, are all related, and I used those relations again and again in my own teaching.

Name one book you could never finish. And why.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Full of useful data and insights, but very dry reading.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

Hank Haney’s account of his years of coaching Tiger Woods, The Big Miss: My Years Coaching Tiger Woods.

Any genres you avoid? And why.

Science fiction. Can’t seem to enter into it imaginatively.

If you could require every university president to read one book, what would it be? And why.

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens for its fictional account of what not to do in administration – a cautionary tale. One of Dickens’ great imaginative and satiric creations is the Circumlocution Office, which he describes as the most important department in government. Its motto is “How Not To Do It” and its expertise lies in burying every issue in a maze of words.

What sort of objects are must-haves in your writing environment?

Bookshelves, the OED, and my laptop

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

James Reaney, Alice Munro, and André Alexis. Stratford, Wingham, and Petrolia. I’d love to hear them trading stories about their own experiences of growing up in those places. And if I could invite two more writers, they would be Marian Engel for Sarnia and Don Gutteridge for Point Edward.

How do you explain what your latest book is about to them?

I would say only Souwesto – and they would know what the book was about.

What is the best line you have ever written?

Wish I had a witty or clever line to answer this question.

Who would you want to write your life story?

Donald Creighton or Robert Caro. Creighton considered his brief biography of Harold Innis the best book he ever wrote.

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Souwesto Lives: John Hair and Alice Runnalls by Donald S. Hair (Rock’s Mills Press, $59.95) is available through The Book Store at Western or Amazon, Indigo, and other major retailers and wholesalers, as well as directly from the publisher at www.rocksmillspress.com.