John Robert Colombo is a man-of-letters. He has written, compiled, and translated more books than any other serious Canadian author. More than 200 titles of his books have been published between 1960 and mid-2008.
In addition, he has edited or co-written about the same number of books for Toronto-based publishers during the same period that appeared under the names of other Canadians (some of them household names).
* He is a poet of note and his poetry has appeared in many standard anthologies and magazines, including Atlantic Monthly. He is designated an honourary member of the League of Canadian Poets. The National Film Board of Canada released two short films, Riverdale Lion and A Said Poem, that brilliantly animate these poems.
* He is a member of the team that produced the “Visions of Mars” plaque is attached to the Phoenix Mars Lander which set down on the Red Planet on 25 May 2008. The marker, a DVD designed by space artist Jon Lomberg, includes contributions by specialist librarian Lorna Toolis, astronomer and author Carl Sagan, and science-fiction personalities Arthur C. Clarke and Judith Merril. Colombo gathered, edited, and introduced some sixty texts of Mars-inspired fiction written by writers from more than two dozen countries.
* He is an occasional contributor of reviews and articles to Graphis International, Le Devoir, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, National Post, Literary Review of Canada, and as well as to many magazines including specialist publications and popular magazines like Maclean’s, Farmer’s Almanac, and Reader’s Digest. He has been a guest on innumerable radio and television programs and served as a regular weekly guest on CBC Radio’s Morningside. He has hosted two television series, CBC-TV’s Colombo Quotes, and KarowPrime Films’ Unexplained Canada.
* He is a specialist in a number of cultural areas. He has been called “the Master Gatherer” for his compilations of Canadiana; John “Bartlett” Colombo for his dictionaries of Canadian quotations; “Canada’s Mr. Mystery” for his books on the supernatural and the paranormal; “Superfan” for his ground-breaking compilations and studies in the field of Canada’s fantastic literature. He was designated an honourary member of the Friends of the Merril Collection, the world-class research library of fantastic literature, a special collection of the Toronto Public Library.
* Among his Ontario-based books are Ghost Stories of Ontario, Mysteries of Ontario, Haunted Toronto, and The Toronto Puzzle Book. Yet most of his collections deal with the country as a whole and sound a note that is “pan-Canadian.”
* He has taught at Atkinson College and Glendon College, York University, which awarded him is an honourary D.Litt. He served as writer-in-residence at Mohawk College, Hamilton, Ontario, where he became the country’s first such writer at a community college.
* He has advised at various times in the past the Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council, North York Arts Council, Canadian Scene (a news service for the ethnic media), and Humber College’s President’s Committee.
* A little-known fact is that he is one of the best-known Canadian authors in Bulgaria; with the late Nicola Roussanoff, he compiled and co-translated five books of Bulgarian history and literature. The Balkan Range is on recommended reading lists. A book of his selected poems was translated and published in Bucharest, Romania.
* He is a licensee of Peter Urs Bender’s “Secrets of Power Presentations” and has spoken on the skill and has led courses in this field on the executive level.
* He is an adviser to the Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society of Toronto and a consultant to the Ontario Skeptics Society for Critical Inquiry. He was one of the invited speakers at the official opening of the Centre for Inquiry (Toronto) in October 2008.
* He is a regular contributor of reviews and commentaries of books and events relevant to “consciousness studies” to the website of Lighthouse Editions of Cambridge, England.
* He worked unpaid as managing editor of The Tamarack Review for twenty years, when it was regarded as the country’s ranking literary quarterly.
* His compilation Colombo’s Canadian Quotations is the “unacknowledged source” of much popular Canadian lore and expression. The book is responsible for the designation of Yonge Street as “the longest designated street in the world.”
* He established literary readings at the Bohemian Embassy, a now-legendary Toronto institution, and organized the first literary readings at Harbourfront, the foundation of its famous International Festival of Authors and Weekly Reading Series.
* He is included in the University of Toronto’s list of “Great U of T Alumni (300)” drawn up in 1999 and updated in 2008 under the heading “Scientists and Thinkers.”
* He was named “The Humanist of the Year 2008″ by The Humanist Association of Toronto. The honour is presented to men and women who, in their actions and creative endeavours, exemplify the principles of Humanism: a commitment to reason, compassion, ethics, and human dignity.”
* JRC describes himself as “the country’s most quoted author … only nobody quotes me … they quote other people’s quotations from my books.” (For instance, his first “quote book” is responsible for the popularity of Pierre Berton’s quip: “A Canadian is somebody who knows how to make love in a canoe.”)
* Peter C. Newman wrote in an unsolicited letter to JRC, “In a very real way you have become the guardian of perpetuating the Canadian psyche – in a fascinating and readable fashion.” SF author Spider Robinson wrote in The Globe and Mail that “John Robert Colombo is a national treasure.”
JRC is occasionally asked to identify his favourite literary and editorial undertakings. Here he offers seven projects that have yielded particular (and unanticipated) pleasure.
1. All my life I have been writing poems and it is as a poet that I see myself in my heart of hearts. After years of public activity on that front – founding venues for presentations, establishing outlets for publications – I withdrew from the poetry and literary scenes and concentrated my time and energy on writing what I wanted to write. I take pride in the three, double-columned volumes of The Poems of John Robert Colombo issued by Battered Silicon Dispatch Box in 2005 and 2006. The tomes consist of some 3,000 poems composed between the late 1950s and the early 2000s. A parallel project has been the publication of The Aphorisms of John Robert Colombo, as well as issuing a series of annual poetry collections, an activity that I initiated in 1996. The current title is End of Greatness which appeared in February 2010. I have never suffered “writer’s block,” but in the past, until I took this remedial measure, I did suffer “publisher’s block.”
2. As a long-time reader of fantastic literature (my omnibus term for science fiction, weird fiction, and fantasy fiction), I was thrilled to have the opportunity to compile what I like to call “the world’s first anthology of Canadian science fiction.” The anthology (in a field important for its anthologies) is called Other Canadas and it traces the history of highly imaginative reconfigurations of the land and the country from Cyrano de Bergerac’s crash-landing in New France through the present to the future to face what I dubbed “the national disaster scenario,” one of four characteristics of the country’s legacy of fantastic writing. I went on to co-edit (with librarian friend Michael Richardson) “the world’s first anthology of Canadian horror fiction,” Not to Be Taken at Night. Then I researched Years of Light, the so-far sole book-length study of Canadian SF fandom, focusing as it does on the life and work of SF fan Leslie A. Croutch of Parry Sound, Ontario. Work of mine has appeared in past issues of the annual anthology known as Tesseeracts. I co-edited No. 14 which appeared in October 2010.
3. The imaginative legacy of the Native Peoples has long been of interest to me, partly because of its indigenous, autochthonous, aboriginal, and shamanistic dimensions. I was able to publish six popular collections in this field; the volumes focus on Inuit and Indian lyrics, Native folklore, and ground-breaking scholarly studies of the Windigo and the Shaking Tent. These publications attracted some popular attention but slight scholarly interest, at least until the present, but now they are now proving to be quite influential. (It seems I am the first person to describe all the stages of the well-ordered performance of the rite of the Shaking Tent.) I am quite pleased that I have had the opportunity to produce The Native Series which consists of a uniform edition of these six titles as trade paperbacks.
4. I take pride in the fact that I single-handedly (for a while at least) put what I call “mysteries” on the map of Canada. I am overstating my contribution, yet with the appearance of Mysterious Canada, I have been able to survey the contributions of Canadians to the world of psychical and the paranormal events and experiences. Some of these contributions are known around the world (though I seem to be the only person to dwell on their Canadian connections). With the first book I came the conclusion that the “evidence” for the reality of psychical phenomena comes from personal accounts, which I dubbed “memorates,” and that these have distinguishing characteristics and make compelling reading. Since then I have published, mainly through my own imprint but also through commercial imprints, three dozen collections of “memorates.” The field is an interesting one but its perennial fascination to me is that it remains intriguing despite the fact that it leads to no proofs — no firm conclusions. I am always on the lookout for first-person accounts from Canadians of their extraordinary experiences.
5. Since the 1960s I watched out for a French scholar to publish a biographical study of the life and work of Denis Saurat, the Anglo-French littérateur who had a special interest in occult thought and its influence on literature, especially on what he dubbed “philosophical poetry.” No study appeared, so I researched, wrote, edited, and published three such books: O Rare Denis Saurat, The Denis Saurat Reader, and Early Earth. I have always felt that Saurat (a private passion) was a professor whose writings in a number of fields were and are well worth knowing, but are so little known for a number of reasons, one of them being the vendetta he had with Charles de Gaulle who scuttled his post-retirement academic career. I was lucky I struck while the iron was hot, as I was able to meet the author’s son Harold in Paris and he assisted me immensely, making my work also his work, as both of us were eager to preserve what we could of his father’s work, memory, and reputation. Harold died soon after the publication of Early Earth, which consists of the texts of Saurat’s contemplations on the prehistory of the Earth and the Moon, books of fascinating if infuriating speculation.
6. Establishing the Colombo & Company imprint with my wife Ruth proved a turning point in my life because it offered me the opportunity to research what I wanted with an assurance that the result, if non-commercial in nature, would be published speedily if not profitably. Yet it proved to be somewhat commercial, so the operation is not “vanity” publishing, a term I will use from time to time, though the term I prefer is “sanity” publishing. In ten years I produced some eighty titles in the unique QuasiBook format – cerlox coils with celluloid covers for instant-printed pages – and while their appearances hardly inspired positive thoughts, they served their purposes. With the advent and availability of print-on-demand technology, I have now issued the first post-QuasiBook titles: End Notes and Footloose. Lately I have been mightily assisted in my efforts at publication by George Vanderburgh, M.D., publisher of The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box. Through him I have reissued a number of QuasiBooks in trade-paperback, print-on-demand form.
7. I will mention, if only in passing, despite all the books that I have produced, I am known to most readers as “the Canadian Bartlett,” as I compiled Colombo’s Canadian Quotations, the first of seven collections of “important or interesting” quotations by Canadians about all subjects under the sun and by other people on Canada. I take pride in collecting these “trifles” as I regard each and every one of them as a tiny “treasure.” My “quote books” bear this motto (taken from a turn-of-the-last-century publication): “Canada only needs to be known in order to be great.”
May 2008 – December 2010