What Is Stephen Harper Reading?

By Yann Martel

What Is Stephen Harper Reading? is the name Booker Prize-winning novelist Yann Martel has given to his project of sending Prime Minister Stephen Harper a copy of a different book every two weeks along with a letter of introduction. Their “cozy book group” is ongoing – Martel has vowed to continue sending books for as long as Harper remains prime minister – and so this collection is an incomplete record of their full correspondence. It includes the first fifty-five letters and four responses (none of them from Harper personally). 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. Knowing what books Harper reads would help Martel understand “Who is this man? What makes him tick?” In particular, the reading habits of politicians matter because “in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do.” Citizens have a positive right to know what reading materials sit on their leaders’ bedside tables and what stories fill their hours of stillness. Out of such stuff national dreams (and nightmares) are born.

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 our 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 being likely to make the reader feel wiser, or capable of somehow increasing their sense of stillness. He also picks short books because Mr. Harper is so busy. But it is, at least, an eclectic list.

In terms of politics Martel appears to be a good liberal, if not Liberal – even recommending one of Michael Ignatieff’s books (one of the few we might suppose Harper has already read). And while he claims (disingenuously, I think) in his first letter not to want to be directed by political considerations in his choices, he frequently digresses on timely political issues, protesting the disbanding of the CBC Radio Orchestra, the cancellation of the PromArt program, 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 composed of “honourable men.” But this humble persona is overdone. Is it possible that Martel, who studied philosophy at university, really didn’t know the meaning of the latin tag ad hominem when someone used it to characterize his criticism of Harper? Why, in a 2008 letter, does he hold Alcan up as an example of a national enterprise Canadians can take patriotic pride in when Alcan was 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? Why does he say that the Indus Valley is “the place that today we call India”? 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. If it really was necessary to go into print at all.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, December 2009.

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