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Bookends: What Yann Martel Hopes Stephen Harper has read December 29, 2013

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Bookends: What Yann Martel Hopes Stephen Harper has read

By Dan Davidson

July 10, 2013

– 751 words –

 

101 Letters to a Prime Minister: The Complete Letters to Stephen Harper

by Yann Martel101 Letters

Vintage Canada

448 pages

$24.95

 

It might seem a little pretentious, to strike up a one-sided correspondence with the Prime Minister of Canada and spend a couple of years sending him a book a week, complete with commentary and the not terribly veiled suggestion that reading these books night help to influence the way he runs the country.

That is what Yann Martel did, back in 2007, shortly after Harper formed his first minority government. He ended the exercise in 2009.

One can forgive Martel a bit of presumption. He was just coming off having been lauded universally for his Life of Pi, which had won him the Man-Booker Prize. £50,000 buys one a lot of presumption and a lot of people were worried (justifiably as it turns out) about what kind of Prime Minister Harper might turn out to be if he ever managed to win a majority government.

So it began, with these words: “I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We’re all busy. 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.”

Martel picked books that ranged all over the literary map, beginning with Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, carrying with Orwell’s Animal Farm, Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

He provided a rationale for reading the book, some commentary on its importance as a piece of literature, and a biographical essay about each of the writers. This averages seven to ten pages for each of the books.

These are interesting commentaries, and if I were still in the classroom, I would recommend them as model essays for the students that I required to write about four for these independent reviews during each semester that I had them for English in grades 9 through 12. They do not slavishly retell the books (plays, poetry, mysteries, classics, essays, graphic novels, biographies, autobiographies and children’s books) but reflect on them and suggest what is revealing or worthwhile about them.

I must admit that I haven’t read this entire book yet. I finished the first 20 entries in sequence and then hopped around in the book, reading some 15 more, especially ones that are about books I have read, which seems to account for about one-quarter of the list. In two or three cases, I’ve been moved to look up some of the older items, which are often available online through Project Guttenberg or some other public domain site.

This book is a good browser, and each chapter is good for 20 minutes or so of thoughtful reading. I picked it up as an e-book and it resides on a couple of my hand-held devices. It’s available in several e-book formats as well as in actual paper. I will finish it eventually, but it may take me several more months, and I feel quite comfortable recommending it based on what I have read so far.

The Prime Minister never did respond, though a succession of assistants sent Martel what were essentially form letters on seven occasions, as well as two similar letters to friends of his who filled in with suggestions in a few instances when Martel was unable to meet his commitment.

It’s safe to say that Mr. Harper did not manage to get through a standard high school and college education in Canada without encountering a few of these books along the way. I used a number of them in my classrooms and I was not terribly unusual in my choices.

All of this material was originally available to view online at a website called Whatisstephenharperreading.ca, (since taken down) which is probably why Vintage Book’s original title for this volume was the somewhat misleading and rather cumbersome What Is Stephen Harper Reading?: Yann Martel’s Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister and Book Lovers of All Stripes.

I think I prefer the present title. It sounds a bit less presumptuous somehow.

 

-30-

 

 

 

 

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