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MONDAY, JULY 04, 2011
Stephen Harper and books don't mix, apparently
Ever wonder what goes on in the mind and private imagination of our Right Honourable Prime Minister? Apparently, Canadian author Yann Martel has. In fact, Martel is so concerned about our PM's state of mind that since April 2007 he's been sending Harper a book every two weeks so that Harper might get something on his mind and into his imagination - other than the thought of clinging to power.

The reason why Martel, known best for his Man Booker Prize winning novel Life of Pi, has been sending Harper so many books (forty-six in all so far), is because he's been wondering about our Prime Minister's state of mind. Martel asks on the homepage blurb (excerpted from the end of a Globe and Mail article in which Martel declared his intentions for the website), "Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts. But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness."

Nevertheless Martel insists, "For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might get from the Prime Minister, on this website.”

Judging by the responses Martel has received (just one, actually: an impersonal, formal, empty thank-you letter from the assistant to the PM) the answer to the site's title question - What is Stephen Harper Reading? - is: "Apparently, not much."

On top of the personal "stillness" that Martel wants to instill in the PM, the purpose of the site is, of course, political as well. As Martel laments in the Globe and Mail piece (linked to the site), "I was thinking that to have a bare-bones approach to arts funding, as the present Conservative government has, to think of the arts as mere entertainment, to be indulged in after the serious business of life, that—in conjunction with retooling education so that it centres on the teaching of employable skills rather than the creating of thinking citizens—is to engineer souls that are post-historical, post-literate and pre-robotic; that is, blank souls wired to be unfulfilled and susceptible to conformism at its worst—intolerance and totalitarianism—because incapable of thinking for themselves, and vowed to a life of frustrated serfdom at the service of the feudal lords of profit."

The letters which accompany the books (including novels, plays, poetry, and more) each consist of an essay by Martel, explaining why the book is so wonderful - or lousy - but in either case, why Harper should read it, that is, if he wants to be able to say he's a halfway well-read individual. Martel's essay/letters are subtle and witty indictments of Harper's politics and personality, and the books he sends are the kind that Harper himself would probably never think of reading.

Some of the more classic and eclectic (and very un-Harper) picks include Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, George Orwell's Animal Farm, Voltaire's Candide, Franz Kafka's Metamorphasis, and The Bhagavad Gita. Authors that Martel has been exposing our under-read PM to range from Leo Tolstoy to Agatha Christie through to Gabriel García Márquez, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, August Stindberg, and Jorges Luis Borges (not that Harper has actually been reading them).

To balance out the implicit nastiness of his pretty much one-way correspondance with Harper, Martel also sends odd light-hearted material. The current book is a collection of Paul McCartney's lyrics and poetry. For Christmas 2007 he sent Harper three children's books, and sometime before that, he sent him the classic Quebecois kids' book, Le Petite Prince, along with a letter penned, fittingly, in French.

Although I say "light-hearted" these kids' books, and another, Read All About It!, by Laura Bush and Jenna Bush (George W.'s wife and daughter, both of whom are teachers), still offer Martel a chance to ruminate on public issues, like the importance of education, and take a stab at Harper. As he writes in the letter on the Bush mother/daughter book, "Teachers are at the forefront of resisting this negative trend (of the corporatist agenda). With whatever means they are given, until they burn out, as they too commonly do, they continue their effort to produce intelligent, knowledgeable, caring citizens. Teachers are pillars of society."

Martel has also sent a couple graphic novels: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Maus by Art Spiegelman, which are about the Iranian Revolution and the Holocaust, respectively. In the Maus letter Martel refers to the Polish town of Oswiecim, from which he was then writing, and sardonically asks Harper, "Oswiecim is better known by the name the Germans gave it: AUSCHWITZ. Have you been?"

Although all of the books, like the website in general, are meant equally as jabs at Harper's ideological leanings, two stand out, at least to me. Books 37 and 38, both sent last September, strike me as particularly biting: Ayn Rand's Anthem and Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal.

In what might be Martel's shortest, most curt letter (fittingly, it's for A Modest Proposal, also the shortest book he's sent), he criticizes Harper for his cuts to arts funding, and writes, "With less art in the future, I wonder of what you think there will be more. What does $45 million buy that has more worth than a people’s cultural expression, than a people’s sense of who they are?"

After quoting a viciously satiric paragraph of Swift's, in which he famously suggests eating the children of the Irish as a cure for Irish poverty, and which ends with Swift saying, "I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout", Martel takes his stab: "The question is simple and pertinent, Mr. Harper: are you preparing a ragout?"

In a rather lengthy letter (in contrast to his preceding one on Swift) which accompanies Ayn Rand's Anthem, Martel attacks Harper's (and Rand's) libertarian leanings. After dealing with Harper's Randian, anti-government (and therefore, one might say, anti-democratic) ideology of hyper-individualism, he comes back to the whole point of the website: "What if a reading list were established for prospective Prime Ministers of Canada, to ensure that they have sufficient imaginative depth to be at the helm of our country? After all, we expect a Prime Minister to have a fair knowledge of the history and geography of Canada, to know something about economics and public administration, about current events and foreign affairs, the financial assets of a Prime Minister are accountable to us, so why shouldn’t his or her imaginative assets also be accountable?

"Because that has been the whole point of our literary duet, hasn’t it? If you haven’t read, now or earlier, any of the books I have suggested, or books like them....what is your mind made of? What materials went into the building of the dreams you have for our country? What is the colour, the pattern, the rhyme and reason of your imagination? These are not questions one is usually entitled to ask, but once someone has power over me, then, yes, I do have the right to probe your imagination, because your dreams may become my nightmares."

Martel then suggests, only half-sarcastically, the procedural logistics for such a reading list: It "could be administered by the Speaker of the House of Commons, an impartial figure, perhaps benefiting from recommendations not only from Members of Parliament but from all Canadian citizens....And how to check that you’ve actually read the books and not had an assistant summarize them for you? Would you have to write an exam, pen an essay, face a committee, answer questions during a Question Period exclusively devoted to the matter?

"'I have no time for this nonsense,' you might feel like shouting. But as I said to you in my very first letter, there is a space next to every bed where a book can be lying in wait. And I ask you again: what is your mind made of?

"So, would that be an idea, to set up a Prime Minister’s Reading List? What is your position on this vital issue?

"I await your answer."

If Harper's lack of response so far is any indication, Martel will be waiting a while. In the meantime, he continues to send our PM a book every two weeks. But, perhaps, not for long. Harper may be on his way out as Prime Minister, and Michael Ignatieff on the way in to replace him.

As a former journalist, philosophy professor, and as an author himself, Ignatieff likely doesn't need Yann Martel to send him any books. And what a refreshing change that might be. Wouldn't it be nice to have a leader who not only reads books but writes them as well? Wouldn't it be nice to have a leader who doesn't need somebody to send him books that he should have already read? Wouldn't it be nice, at the very least, to have a Prime Minister with something on his mind?



Just because Harper never responded to being sent Animal Farm doesn't mean that he hasn't read it yet (And who hasn't read it after post-secondary education?) I'm not really a fan of Harper, but there's really no reason for him to have to respond to Martel. Maybe he could take advantage of the situation and answer back a witty response but he doesn't have to. I think Martel has put himself in a position where he won simply because his straw man can't answer back.

I'd be willing to bet that as someone who went to Queens, Harper has come across at least a few of these books. And though Ignatieff may have read more, if I can assume as easily as you, I bet there's quite a few missing from his list too. If he has missed a few, they're most likely the more modern ones like Persepolis and maybe even Life of Pi itself.

The point is, Martel's open letters are meant more for the Canadian public than Harper. It sends the message that there is a protest to Harper but I think that's the most we can make from it. Looking into Harper's reading habits and imagination is reading too much into the situation.



Yeah, maybe I lacked some irony in the piece, not acknowledging that Martel is speaking more to his web audience than to Harper himself. Still, Martel isn't being completely facetious, I don't think. He may have given up hope by now, but I still think he'd take a response from Harper at face-value, sympathetically, and rather joyously.

Anyway, your comment stands. And I thought you'd point out the Orwell. I'll try to make that the last, if passing, reference to least for a while.

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