What is the Prime Minister reading?

In the spring of 2007 on study leave in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada I attended a large international social sciences conference hosted by the University. One morning I found myself at a talk by Yann Martel the prize winning author of The Life of Pi (not yet a major motion picture but still prize winning and much discussed.) What, I wondered, would the author of this rather quirky novel have to say.

218 Life of Pi coverYann Martel blew me away, not by talking about tigers in boats and shipwrecks or the meaning of life, but instead he told us about a recent incident, which had left him very offended and not a little steamed up. And he was doing something about it.

The inciting incident

The incident concerned casual, even impolite behaviour by the Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, in the House of Commons in Ottawa. 50 Canadian artists from all disciplines had been invited to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Canada Council for the Arts in March 2007. In the visitors gallery the 50 artists stood up, were acknowledged by the relevant minister and in 5 minutes the celebrations of Canadian arts was finished and the MPs turned to other business.

From the shadow into which I had been cast, I focused on one man. The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute. He didn’t even look up. By all appearances, he didn’t even know we were there. (5)

The Prime Minister, Yann Martel told us, was shuffling through his papers preparing for the next business.

The action

Yann Martel, relating this story (it’s retold with slightly less vehemence in the book, which I’ll come to), revealed his complete commitment to reading and books. He began a project that lasted nearly four years, writing to Stephen Harper and enclosing a short book to illustrate why reading is so important. The first book was The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy.

In reading about fictional others we end up reading about ourselves. Sometimes this unwitting self-examination provokes smiles of recognition, while other times, as in the case of this book, it provokes shudders of worry and denial. Either way we are the wiser, we are existentially thicker. (16)

He received a short letter of acknowledgement in reply from the Prime Minister’s office.

He continued to send a book every two weeks, with a covering letter. It was usually shorter than 200 pages, and where possible in a paperback edition, sometimes second hand. He also set up a website so other people could see his choices, the letters that explained them and the responses of Mr Harper. People would be able to make recommendations. And they did.

The outcomes

In the event the Prime Minister’s office only acknowledged two of the 55 books that were sent between April 2007 and February 2011.

For a while Yann Martel’s small-scale pro-book campaign gathered momentum and followers. He compiled a book, What is Stephen Harper Reading? explaining the project, his book club of two people, and including the letters he sent with the books. Later he included the original in 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Both books are currently out of print.

218 St Harper

In October 2015 Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was defeated by the Canadian Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau. I was reminded, by news of his defeat, of Yann Martel’s project and got hold of a copy of What is Stephen Harper Reading? The book club had finished by then.

Yann Martel said as he ended his project,

I’m tired of using books as political bullets and grenades. Books are too wonderful to be used long for such a function. (Toronto Star 2.2.11)

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

218 What you reading? coverIt’s a book about books, and it’s a book about why reading is so important for individuals, including politicians. He describes it as a small book club but it’s actually a course in reading. He goes through 55 books, which he sent Stephen Harper April 2007 and May 2009. Answering the question why it’s his or anyone’s business what Stephen Harper is reading he writes this.

But 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. As I wrote in one of my letters to the man, if Stephen Harper hasn’t read The Death of Ivan Ilych or any other Russian novel, if he hasn’t read Miss Julia or any other Scandinavian play, if he hasn’t read Metamorphosis or any other German-language novel, or if he hasn’t read Waiting for Godot or To the Lighthouse or any other experimental play or novel, if he hasn’t read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or The Educated Imagination or any other philosophical inquiry, if he hasn’t read … then what is his mind made of? (10)

218 obama2-large

The choice of books is wide ranging: novels, plays, poems, meditations, short story collections, children’s books, graphic novels, crime novels, in English and French, in translation and from the last 400 years.

It does the work of good fiction: it transports you to a situation that might be alien to you, makes it familiar, and so brings understanding. (From the letter on The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.) (95)

The making of art, as I may have mentioned to you before, involves a lot of work. Because of that it is implicitly constructive. One doesn’t work so hard merely to destroy. No matter how much cruelty and sadness a story may hold, its effect is always the opposite. … Art then is implicitly liberal; it encourages us towards openness and generosity, it seeks to unlock doors. (From the letter on The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison.) (145)

Of course, it is a little disingenuous of Yann Martel to reproach Mr Harper in this way for he cannot respond. But then he should have paid attention when Canadian arts were being honoured and acknowledged the gifts he was sent. Martel is occasionally preachy and portentous. But I can forgive him that for the intent at the heart of his action (connecting books and politics), and by providing such an interesting book about books and their importance. And I’d love to be existentially thicker.

A few notes on Saskatoon

People were very rude about Saskatoon, not a large city right in the middle of Canada. They told me it’s so flat you can sit on your porch and watch your dog run away for two days.

While I was in the University Bookshop the assistant said, ‘Gee I love your accent. Are you from London?’ At that time I was. ‘Have you ever met Madonna?’ I laughed. ‘That would be like me asking you if you have ever met Joni Mitchell.’ ‘But I have. She used to visit her grandmother in the old people’s home where my aunt was.’ That’s Saskatoon for you.

It turns out that Yann Martel and Alice Knipers live in Saskatoon. Joni Mitchell (get well soon) also claims it as her home town. Not bad for Saskatoon. Not bad for Canada.

What is Stephen Harper Reading? By Yann Martel, published in 2009 by Vintage Canada. 230pp

Over to you

You can find the complete list of books recommended by Yann Martell on the University of Montana Library site.

Characters from a famous soap opera?

Characters from a famous soap opera?

What is David Cameron reading? Do we know? Do we care? Is he conscious of British writers and artists and their achievements? What would you recommend to him if you had the chance, or to any other politician?


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Filed under Books, Reading

13 Responses to What is the Prime Minister reading?

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Caroline. I knew of this project but not in this level of detail and, of course, the book itself will tell us more.
    While there is some evidence that fiction enhances empathy, there are some people who, for whatever reason, just don’t get it, and I’m not sure we know very much about why that is, I wouldn’t want to brand them as less humane. On the other hand, there are so many warmongers out there, you can’t help thinking that they need a little help to see things from another point of view.
    I’ve been meaning to put post together about the possibility that reading fiction promotes a more positive attitude to diversity – you might just have prompted me to get down to that today!

  2. Eileen

    An excellent blog Caroline. Fascinating.
    I really like the list The Guardian does just at the start of the summer recess when politicians are asked to list their summer reading. They choose political stuff on the whole. I think they are trying to impress and I expect they get advice from their staff just as they do when appearing on Desert Island Discs.
    A colleague – a reader funnily enough – once proudly told me that he never, ever read novels. I often wondered what his mind was made of.
    And just to let you know that my very first lover came from Saskatoon. We met in London and I often wondered what his mind was made of – but as an actor he read a lot of plays so at least we had one shared passion.

    • I was thinking something similar, Eileen, about how, when the issue of what politicians are reading becomes important, they’re quite likely to tell us what the spin doctors have told them would reflect well on them, rather than on their genuine interest.

    • Caroline

      Everyone has a Saskatoon story! Thanks for the reminder about the summer reading for MPs and cabinet. I did look it up but found nothing interesting, except that picture of DC and GO on the set of the soap opera-I think they have their own fictions going in their heads. C xx

  3. Marianne Coleman

    I really enjoyed that blog Caroline. What a good idea to feed politicians at least suggestions for books to read. I think that Justin Trudeau might be a bit more thoughtful than Stephen Harper although he does not seem particularly articulate. I love the story about Joni Mitchell too.

    • Caroline

      Hi Marianne, We could probably suggest ballet, tv shows, and theatre to those politicians as well. Trudeau has an Eng Lit degree so …
      Thanks for the comment

  4. What an excellent post! We know, now, that Obama’s book of 2015 was Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies which I’m quite impressed by. I’m not sure I’d want to know what Cameron’s was, if indeed there is one. Lovely Joni Mitchell anecdote, too. Thanks to Eileen for reminding me of the Guardian’s summer piece.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for your comment. I think I had better read Fates and Furies now you have told me it’s Obama’s book of 2015. I have recently included two pictures of Obama buying books, in different stores I think.


  5. Kathleen James-Cavan

    I loved this entry, Caroline! How wonderful to see a reflection of my adopted home. I live in Saskatoon, teach in the English department of the University of Saskatchewan, and helped organize one of the conferences within the 2007 Congress you mention which annually gathers the learned societies of the humanities and social sciences in Canada. I’ve met Yann and Alice on several occasions and taught _Life of Pi_ in first-year classes. (Yann and I also earned B.A.s at the same small Canadian university, but not at the same time). Although I haven’t yet read the book you review, I remember the project launched when Stephen Harper’s government was just beginning its disastrous de-funding of the arts and evisceration of our national broadcaster. We’re hopeful again. My politics are a trifle to the left of Mr. Trudeau’s; however, he is a darn sight more articulate than Mr. Harper. He has a degree in English literature, a fact we’ve been emphasizing to our students. “Look what you can do with an English degree!”

    • Caroline

      Hi Kathleen. Great to have a Saskatooner comment on this post and to be able to thank someone for the great time I had at that conference/congress. I am hopeful of young Mr Trudeau, and expect his reading habits and respect for the arts will be a welcome change. Please visit the blog again. Caroline

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