When I learned that Yann Martel, the brilliant Canadian author of Life of Pi, had been sending our Prime Minister one book every two weeks since April 16, 2007, I nearly fell over laughing. What an ingenious pain in the ass.
As of today, April 19, 2010, Martel has sent Mr. Harper 80 books. These books are meant to inspire stillness and allow him moments of “solitude and idleness for which to contemplate the why’s of life”, according to Martel.
They range from children’s picture books to poetry and religious texts to graphic novels; books written by the new and the long-gone, Canadian and international authors alike. Each book sent is dated, numbered and inscribed in the front cover and includes a letter addressed to the PM.
“Why does Martel do this?” you might wonder.
It began with a celebration attended by Martel and Harper – the 50th Anniversary of the Canadian Council for the Arts in 2007. Fifty Canadian artists were invited, including said author, along with other writers, painters, musicians and so on, to gather in the House of Commons. According to Martel, question period ended, then the Minister for Canadian Heritage acknowledged the presence of the attending artists, and then it was over. Stephen Harper didn’t look up, didn’t acknowledge their presence and “by all appearances, didn’t even know we were there.”
At this moment, Martel wondered, “Who is this man? What makes him tick?”
His consensus – the leader of our country can’t possibly be reading books.
As Martel writes, “If I see a man fiercely beating a horse, I feel reasonably confident in concluding that he hasn’t read Black Beauty. If Stephen Harper is informed by literary culture or, indeed, by culture in general, it doesn’t show in what he says or what he does.”
And while it might not typically be anyone’s business if and what people read, Martel argues that the nature of being elected to public office and acquiring power over people makes it fair game to inquire about the development of their imagination, “because their dreams may become my nightmares.”
So, Martel has been sending Stephen Harper books – The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, Animal Farm by George Orwell, The Bhagavad Gita. He has sent him works by Harper Lee, Kafka, Marcus Aurelius, Anais Nin, Laura and Jenna Bush, Dylan Thomas, Ayn Rand, Anthony Burgess, Paul McCartney, Micheal Ignatieff, Hemingway and Astrid Lindgren.
In Martel’s fifth book, What is Stephen Harper Reading?, he gathers together the first 55 letters he has written to the PM, so we can discover his recommended readings, reminisce about those we have already read and add those we have not yet enjoyed to our own lists.
Each letter details what Martel hopes the Prime Minister will take away from reading the book, with some background on its author and context around the time in which the book was written, and is interspersed with humour and philosophy.
Maintaining the style of typical letter correspondence, Martel writes like he is engaged in communication with an old friend, never forgetting to include happy birthday and Christmas wishes, regrets over hockey playoffs and irritations at each arts funding cut.
Sadly, at the time of print, Martel had only received two letters from the Prime Minister’s office thanking him for his books, neither written by the PM himself. Since then he has received three more letters from the PM’s office.
Having been on a ridiculously dry reading spell myself, Martel’s book has fired up and old romance in me; one with dusty, old-smelling pages littered with ideas, experiences, dreams and thoughts captured as only words can do.
And just for fun, I might start sending the odd book to Stephen Harper myself, as Martel invites us to do:
The Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A2
I would definitely like to know what exactly Stephen Harper has been reading.
In addition to the book, Yann Martel has a blog dedicated to his correspondence with Stephen Harper.