Tuesday, April 24, 2007


The literary education of Stephen Harper

I love this.

Canadian author Yann Martel, perhaps best known for his book Life of Pi, has taken on a project of sorts. He has appointed himself literary tutor of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in an attempt to make Harper "a more arts-friendly prime minister." Part of that campaign is to mail Harper a new book every two weeks as long as Harper is prime minister. Not only a new book, but a book inscribed by Martel and introduced with a personalized letter explaining why a particular book was chosen. Martel is chronicling the experience on his Web site called What is Stephen Harper Reading.

Martel writes on his Web site:

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 not a jot 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. 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 esponse I might get from the Prime Minister, on this website.

The first book is Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych. I haven't read it, but I'm thinking about it now. Here's what Martel said about why he recommended it in the introduction to his letter:

The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy, is the first book I am sending you. I thought at first I should send you a Canadian work—an appropriate symbol since we are both Canadians—but I don’t want to be directed by political considerations of any sort, and, more importantly, I can’t think of a work of such brevity, hardly 60 pages, that shows so convincingly the power and depth of great literature. Ivan Ilych is an indubitable masterpiece. There is nothing showy here, no vulgarity, no pretence, no falseness, nothing that doesn’t work, not a moment of dullness, yet no cheap rush of plot either. It is the story, simple and utterly compelling, of one man and his ordinary end.
He goes on for quite a bit longer; you can see the full text of Martel's first letter to Harper on the Web site. But I loved the concluding paragraph and wanted to share that, too:
I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We’re all busy. Meditating monks in their cells are busy. That’s adult life, filled to the ceiling with things that need doing. (It seems only children and the elderly aren’t plagued by lack of time—and notice how they enjoy their books, how their lives fill their eyes.) But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table. In that space, at night, a book can glow. And in those moments of docile wakefulness, when we begin to let go of the day, then is the perfect time to pick up a book and be someone else, somewhere else, for a few minutes, a few pages, before we fall asleep. And there are other possibilities, too. Sherwood Anderson, the American writer best known for his collection of stories Winesburg, Ohio, wrote his first stories while commuting by train to work. Stephen King apparently never goes to his beloved baseball games without a book that he reads during breaks. So it’s a question of choice.

It's a question of choice. I'm tempted, so tempted, to turn this into my own personal book club and read along, but I acknowledge that there are simply too many other priorities competing for my time right now and I choose to delay reading these books until some future date when my life is a little bit less full of the joys of life with preschoolers.

But I do love the idea. If you could recommend a book, any book, to send to Stephen Harper - or, for our American cousins, George Bush - or to any national leader, for that matter; if you could choose a single book to send to your prime minister or president, what book would you choose?