David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Canadian Author Wonders What Harper is Reading

Brandon Sun, July 3, 2010 - David McConkey

If you had the chance, what would you say to Prime Minister Stephen Harper?

Would you say to him, for example, that Canada should stay longer in Afghanistan? Or withdraw right now?

Would you recommend that his government increase funding for some program? Or cut somewhere else?

Or, would you share with the Prime Minister a general approach that would help him overall in his important job?

Of course, as a citizen, you DO have the chance to say something to Stephen Harper. So write that letter! (Remember, the postage is free.)

But few regular citizens have so taken advantage of being able to communicate with our PM as has Canadian author Yann Martel.

Every two weeks for the last three years, Martel has sent a book – with an accompanying letter – to Stephen Harper.

The project has been documented on the Internet and in a book titled What Is Stephen Harper Reading? 

Martel now has sent more than 80 books and letters. Martel notes that the books are recommended reading not only for a prime minister, but also “for book lovers of all stripes.”

“I started it in a moment of frustration,” Martel recalls of the project’s  genesis. He was in the House of Commons in 2007, attending an anniversary event for the Canada Council for the Arts.

Martel was taken aback by the lack of interest shown by the MPs. And, in particular, by the lack of interest shown by the Prime Minister.

Martel also was concerned about the disdain that the Conservative government has for “culture” and for cultural funding.

So Martel started on a mission to promote culture, through the medium of books for our head of government.

Why shouldn’t there be a reading list established for prime ministers of Canada, Martel asks, “to ensure that they have sufficient imaginative depth to be at the helm of our country?”

Martel’s books reflect, as he admits, “the tastes, choices and limitations of one reader.” Yet the sheer range is vast.

The bestselling author of “Life of Pi,” Martel was obviously already familiar with many books. And he has received suggestions from others as the project has progressed.

Martel has “mostly veered away from the Canadian and the contemporary” as he didn’t want to be “accused of foisting my friends” on Harper. Other than that, he has observed only three broad guidelines.

First: brevity. This guideline recognizes that busyness might prevent a prime minister, or indeed any of us, from sampling an intriguing book. So, Martel didn’t select “War and Peace.” He chose instead Leo Tolstoy’s short story “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” which became the very first offering.

Second: plain speaking. Again, this is an advantage to those who don’t have “stretches of hours in which to wrap their mind around a convoluted story.”

Third: variety. The collection includes novels, plays, poetry, ancient religious texts, recent non-fiction, children’s books, and graphic novels. (“Graphic novels,” by the way, are also known as comic books!)

The assortment of writers is as varied as Jane Austen, Milton Acorn, Ayn Rand, Voltaire, Paul McCartney, Franz Kafka, Marcus Aurelius, William Shakespeare, Gabriel García Márquez, and Laura Bush.

Among the more surprising of Martel’s choices is some female erotica from Anaïs Nin. Martel cautions the Prime Minister that this particular selection “may leave you cold.”

The accompanying letter sometimes provides a summary, explanation, or background to the book. Other times the letter is more of a tangential meditation that the book has inspired.

“It is always nice to know a little about the author of a book,” Martel adds, including a short informative biography in each submission.

Martel sends only used books, which itself is a delightful touch.

“I like the idea of holding a book that someone else has held, of eyes running over lines that have already seen the light of other eyes,” Martel writes. “That, in one image, is the community of readers, the communion of literature.” 

Yann Martel’s cultural vision is one of life filled with curiosity, wonder, humour, compassion, and engagement. 

Such a vision does not come to mind when thinking of the Stephen Harper government.

But such a vision is a wonderful one to contemplate when thinking of the citizens of a lively democracy.

* * * *
See also:  

Stephen Harper is the New Pierre Trudeau

Canadian History Boring?  Not if You Know a Little

Prime Minister Obama?

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David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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