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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 627-628
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Becoming Modern in Toronto: The Industrial Exhibition and the Shaping of a Late Victorian Culture
Becoming Modern in Toronto: The Industrial Exhibition and the Shaping of a Late Victorian Culture. By Keith Walden. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Pp. xx+430; illustrations, notes, index. $55 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).
Although the title suggests a book of interest to many readers of Technology and Culture, Becoming Modern in Toronto is a missed opportunity. Keith Walden, a professor of history at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, calls his book "a cultural history of the Toronto Industrial Exhibition from its founding, in 1879, to 1903" (p. ix). The Toronto Industrial Exhibition, now known as the Canadian National Exhibition, the CNE, or simply The Ex, is an important part of Canadian technological history. Given such a topic, and such a disappointing book, one can only ask: What went wrong?
Walden is interested in understanding "how meaning is constructed through active human practices" (p. x). During a period of industrialization, rapid urban growth, and burgeoning new technologies, Toronto and its exhibition provided much to attract and confuse contemporaries, and so it should provide grist for the historian's mill. Curiously, Walden has little interest in technology. As he says, "I lingered in the places that most aroused my own curiosity. I spent much more time in the Crystal Palace than in Machinery Hall" (p. xvii). Although he touches briefly on such technologies as electric illumination, we learn far more about pickpockets, the niceties of evading Ontario's restrictive liquor laws, the methods used by hotel clerks [End Page 627] to spot shady characters, and complaints by the public about bad meals, appalling accommodations, poor toilet facilities, and mediocre exhibits.
Walden seeks meaning by viewing the exhibition as a ritual, a term he takes to mean "situations when ordinary structures are dissolved and cultural elements are allowed to interact and combine in ways normally prohibited," situations "inconceivable in regular life" (pp xvi, 25). This concept of ritual is potentially fruitful for looking at change and the search for meaning. For example, it helps the reader understand how exhibition visitors learned about browsing and shopping for mass-produced goods. Unfortunately, the utility of ritual as an intellectual tool--what Walden calls "analytical scaffolding" (p. xvi)--is almost wholly obscured by the organization of the book. Becoming Modern in Toronto is organized around seven themes corresponding to seven of the eight chapters: order, confidence, display, identity, space, entertainment, and carnival. Walden explains how these categories contribute to his search for meaning, but they are considerably less helpful for the reader. Because almost everything in the book is related to more than one category, topics are discussed piecemeal in two, three, or more places but never adequately in one place. The book is hopelessly disjointed and repetitious. If the seven themes had been introduced in the final chapter by way of summary, they might have helped the reader understand the text. As it is, they obscure far more than they reveal.
Walden tells of the many years it took to write Becoming Modern in Toronto and how he is grateful "to the people of Canada whose taxes were the source of . . . monies" (p. xix). Perhaps after years of research and writing he ran out of steam. Following the preface, acknowledgments, and introduction, the book becomes a compilation of fact after fact, incident after incident, interrupted occasionally by references to findings of one or more contemporary scholars. The result reads more like antiquarianism than interpretive history. There is interesting material lurking here, but most readers will probably find it too hard to locate, given the disjointed text. There are no subheadings within chapters, the index is insufficiently detailed, and the system of crediting illustrations is annoyingly idiosyncratic. This reads like the work of an enthusiastic amateur, not what one expects from an academic press or an academic.
Norman R. Ball
Dr. Ball is director of the Centre for Society, Technology, and...