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What Is Stephen Harper Reading? Yann Martel’s Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister and Book Lovers of All Stripes

by Yann Martel

What Is Stephen Harper Reading? takes its name from Booker Prize-winning novelist Yann Martel’s project of sending Prime Minister Stephen Harper a different book every two weeks along with a letter of explication. Martel has vowed to continue sending books for as long as Harper remains prime minister, so this collection is an incomplete record of their full correspondence. It includes Martel’s first 55 letters and the four responses (none of them from Harper personally) he has received to date. (It should be noted that an up-to-date version of the complete project is available, for free, online.)

Martel’s purpose is hard to grasp. The initial idea was inspired by curiosity. The reading habits of politicians matter because “in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do.” Knowing what books Harper reads would help Martel answer the questions, “Who is this man? What makes him tick?”

All of which may be true, but no attempt is made here to answer the question of what Stephen Harper is reading. Instead, what is offered is Martel’s “reading list . . . for prospective prime ministers of Canada, to ensure that they have sufficient imaginative depth to be at the helm of our country.” The result is two different things: a “book about books” and a political tract.

As literary criticism, it disappoints. The commentary is perfunctory and without insight, rarely rising above the level of platitude. And the books seem to have been chosen almost at random. Martel’s main consideration is that each book must be “good,” which he defines vaguely as making the reader feel wiser, or increasing a sense of stillness. He also picks short books because Mr. Harper is so busy. With titles that range from The Bhagavad Gita to A Clockwork Orange, it is, to say the least, an eclectic list.

In terms of politics, Martel appears to be a good liberal – if not a Liberal – even recommending one of Michael Ignatieff’s books (The Lesser Evil), one of the few in this collection that one might suppose Harper had already read. And while in his first letter he claims (disingenuously, I think) not to be directed by political considerations, Martel frequently digresses on timely political issues, protesting the disbanding of the CBC Radio Orchestra, the cancellation of the PromArt program for touring artists, and cuts to magazine funding. But on none of these points does he have anything new or interesting to say.

The tone adopted by Martel throughout is one of ironic humility, displayed most sharply in his Julius Ceasar letter accusing the government of being “honourable men.” Unfortunately, the naïf persona is overdone. Why, in a 2008 letter, does Martel use Alcan as an example of a “global player” Canadians can be proud of when Alcan had been acquired by an Anglo-Australian mining company in 2007? Why does he say that Harper has “made great and fruitful efforts to learn” French since becoming Prime Minister when Harper was fluently bilingual before attaining the office? You can get away with stuff like this on a blog, which is where it first appeared, but it should have been fact-checked before going to print. That is, if it really was necessary to go into print at all.