In an effort to educate our PM, Yann Martel learns a few lessons of his own in writing What Is Stephen Harper Reading?
During Stephen Harper’s first running for prime minister, a reporter asked him what his favourite book was – he answered "The Guinness Book of World Records." It’s (almost) hard to believe that we could have a leader with such a gaping chasm where his appreciation for books should be, but we’ve seen the results of it in the public sphere over the last few years, as many of our funding agencies that have supported the arts have been gutted by his government.
All that would be enough, perhaps, for a Canadian writer who wrote his first book with a much-needed Canada Council grant to have something of a hate-on for Harper. But when Yann Martel started What Is Stephen Harper Reading? as a web project in which he sent the Prime Minister a bi-weekly book accompanied by a letter about the meaning and value of each work and its relevance to an understanding of the human experience, the process very quickly elevated itself beyond bitterness and sarcasm.
The recently released book collection of Martel’s letters is not only a valuable primer for the PM (whose offices have yet to send a personalized response to Martel), but also for anyone who values a well-rounded reading library as a resource for their own edification as human beings.
"It’s a funny bullet, this book, because it doesn’t hurt you," says Martel in an interview at a Mont-Royal Ave. café a few weeks ago. "In fact, by reading it, it makes you better. So I’ve been thinking of both the PM and also other readers while I was writing these letters about these books. Because, you know, I’m worried about the quality of [Harper's] mind… But while engaged in this process, I’ve also expanded my own appreciation for certain kinds of books and gotten out of my own literary rut. I hardly ever read poetry, but I’m trying to be representative, so I read, for example, Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters and I loved it."
The books on the list so far have included classics (The Epic of Gilgamesh), Shakespeare (Julius Caesar), Russian lit (Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich), Canlit (Munro, Atwood, Tomson Highway, Françoise Sagan, Northrop Frye, Douglas Coupland), great Americans (Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Hemingway) and the aforementioned poetry, as well as Martel’s collection of letters itself, which is number 66. Martel plans to keep the project going as long as Harper is PM at least, and has plans to expand the project to, perhaps, include guest letter-writers as well, if he is travelling or too busy to write himself.
"I thought maybe I’d be really ambitious and start with Margaret Atwood, but I’m kind of nervous she’d write a scathing letter or one dripping in irony," says Martel. "And that’s not really the point. I don’t like his government myself, but you can’t spend 69 letters just hating someone."