Yann Martel sends Stephen Harper his own book, then disappears into his own navel

October 14, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

41jf6MwWJRLFor those of you unfamiliar with Yann Martel’s ongoing project, What Is Stephen Harper Reading?, a quick recap: The Booker Prize-winning author of The Life of Pi, feeling slighted because our Prime Minister apparently wasn’t sufficiently fawning when Martel and a group of other artists appeared in the House of Commons to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Canada Council for the Arts in March 2007, decided to send Harper one book every two weeks for the duration of his tenure as Prime Minister. Each book is inscribed by Martel and accompanied by a note of explication. “The purpose,” Martel writes, “was and is to remind Stephen Harper of the life-shaping marvel contained within books.”

That quote comes from the introduction to the newly published book What Is Stephen Harper Reading? Yann Martel’s Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister and Book Lovers of All Stripes. The book, which is a collection of the letters Martel sent to Harper between April 2007 and May 2009 (and thus, an incomplete record of his “ongoing” project: can a sequel be far behind?), is a print version of material that is already available, for free, online.

Give Martel credit for this much: to this point, the books he has chosen for his “lonely book club” have been interesting and eclectic: The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Waiting for Godot, and The Bluest Eye are all represented. But, in an act of unbridled solipsism, Martel felt it necessary to send Harper a different title to remind him “of the life-shaping marvel contained within books” – Martel’s own. That’s right: book number 66 is none other than What Is Stephen Harper Reading? by Yann Martel.

Martel justifies the move this way:

There’s safety in being published in book form. Who knows what might happen to the letters I sent you? I print an extra copy of each before mailing it to you, and the originals are I hope gathering in an archive box, but these physical traces are subject to the erosion of time or might simply be lost. As for the website which bears public witness to our book club, despite the easy access anyone has to it on a computer, it too is ephemeral. Though a website may appear on a limitless number of screens at the same moment, its underlying support is far more limited: just a virtual memory somewhere that, despite all the safeguards and backups, could be compromised and its contents destroyed.

Now, I obviously agree with Martel that books are practically sacred objects (I fetishize books just as much as the next guy), containing within them material that is both intellectually and, yes, even spiritually edifying. The problem with Martel’s project lies in its evident narcissism. It began with a grudge* and has reached its current apogee with an instance of blatant self-promotion. If there was any doubt about this, Martel’s gives the game away in his accompanying letter, which includes a mention of Harper’s response to journalist Chantal Hébert, who sent the PM a copy of Brian Lee Crowley’s book Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada’s Founding Values (the title of which Martel gets wrong in his letter, incidentally). Hearing that Harper wrote back to Hébert (something he has not done for Martel) and told her that he read Crowley’s book, Martel responds:

Well, I don’t have to ask what she has that I don’t. I know the answer: I haven’t sent you a single book on economic or political theory, or, for that matter, much non-fiction of any sort. Good of you to have read Fearful Symmetry. I’m not familiar with it. I hope you liked it. But is there any space on your reading list for a novel, a play or a poem?

The patronizing tone not only masks an apparent petulance, but probably underscores for Harper the notion that artists are a whiny, entitled bunch who need not be bothered with, except as annoyances. Which, needless to say, is precisely the wrong message to be sending to our leader at this precarious point in our country’s artistic development.

*From Martel’s introduction to the book edition of What Is Stephen Harper Reading? (Vol. 1):

The moment had come. The Minister for Canadian Heritage, Bev Oda at the time, rose to her feet, acknowledged our presence and began to speak. We artists stood up, not for ourselves but for the Canada Council and what it represents. The Minister did not speak for long. In fact, she had barely started, we thought, when she finished and sat down. There was a flutter of applause and then MPs turned to other matters. We were still standing, incredulous. That was it? Fifty years of building Canada’s dazzling and varied culture, done with in less than five minutes? I remember the poet Nicole Brossard laughed and shook her head as she sat down. I couldn’t quite laugh.


2 Responses to “Yann Martel sends Stephen Harper his own book, then disappears into his own navel”
  1. Nick Kosonic says:

    Dear Yann: Don’t know you, of course, but through the net and yet there needs to be a concerted effort to start putting pressure on this government and especially the “entitled” attitude that seems to be oppressing all that is “Sacred” in this world. The “Great Mother” is being raped daily by our collective and this government is “goose-stepping” into the parade with little. if any, concern about the ultimate result. I’m also shocked daily by our great institution The “CBC” by it’s flippant disregard for what’s happening and the repeated dismissal through comedy and off-handed reports of quite critical actions on the part of this government’s policies regarding the environment and the resources that are “NOT” ours to claim and dispose of for the betterment of the multinationals. We all need to get back to a heart-centered approach to solving our problems. I’d love to find out what books of the one’s you sent have actually been read by our “Leader” and what his opinions are.
    Pressure, yes pressure ! Humble Regards, Nick

  2. Nick Kosonic says:

    And, ….. I offer you this. A Citizen’s Response to the National Security … – Common Dreams

    If it doesn’t get you there right away, enjoy the travel,…..