By Natalie Johal
What is Stephen Harper Reading?: Yann Martel’s Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister and Book Lovers of All Stripes (Yann Martel)
When President Obama was asked what he likes to read he listed, among others, the seminal works of Toni Morrison, Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln.
When Stephen Harper, on the other hand, was asked the same question in 2004, he said his favourite book was The Guinness Book of World Records. While his response isn’t overly impressive, it’s not very controversial and in all likelihood, he chose it with that very thing in mind.
Could anyone really be offended by the fact that the PM likes a book filled with facts?
Canadian writer Yann Martell wasn’t overly bothered by Harper’s literary attachments—or lack thereof—until March of 2007, when the Prime Minister seemed to show disinterest during a House of Commons tribute to the Canada Council for the Arts.
Since then, Martell has come to the conclusion that the Guinness Book incident was actually symptomatic of a fundamental flaw in our leader: Stephen Harper doesn’t like to read.
So as of April 16, 2007 Yann Martell has mailed a book and a letter to the Right Honourable Stephen Harper every two weeks, hoping to make him a lover of literary culture—assuming, of course, that he isn’t one already.
What is Stephen Harper Reading? is a compilation of the letters Martell has sent to Mr. Harper in his attempt to bring culture to our head of state and to invoke moments of ‘stillness,’ of meditation and introspection, in him.
In his introduction, Martell responds to a question that a lot of people have already asked of him: does it matter what our Prime Minister reads, or if he even reads at all? Yes, says Martell.
He explains, “Once someone has power over me, then, yes, their reading does matter to me, because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do.”
Martell goes on to name a number of literary works and then asks, “if Stephen Harper hasn’t read any of these, then what is his mind made of? How did he get his insights into the human condition?” adding, “Once someone has power over me, I have the right to probe the nature and quality of their imagination, because their dreams may become my nightmares.”
Martell’s correspondence with the Prime Minister is one-sided. Harper’s staff has written back less than a handful of times and only to say the books have been appreciatively received. The content of the letters or the books themselves have never been discussed. So, whether or not Harper has read any of the books at all remains something of a mystery.
It’s almost enough to read What is Stephen Harper Reading? and enjoy it without knowing about the works Martell refers to, and even without going on to read them later, since the letters quickly becomes their own story—about a relationship between an artist and a politician. That would be missing the point, however.
There’s a lot to take from What is Stephen Harper Reading? for Prime Ministers and non-Prime Ministers, readers and non-readers. The letters themselves are instructive and deeply philosophical. Martell unabashedly talks to Stephen Harper about almost anything—language, colonialism, love, the environment, parenting, Afghanistan, homosexuality, Aboriginal issues—in a way that’s cheeky yet charming, and probably pretty infuriating to the man he’s gently, but unsubtly, criticizing and calling to action.
What is Stephen Harper Reading? is available at Mosaic Books.
Natalie Johal writes book reviews for Kelowna.com each week, covering a wide range of contemporary fiction and non-fiction. She will seek out illuminating and relevant pieces of writing and hopes to assist readers in finding their next favourite book. Johal is a graduate of UBC-Okanagan and has recently returned to Kelowna after going on to study Journalism and Mass Communication in Australia.