What is Stephen Harper Reading? A Book Review: Yann Martel and the Unanswered Question


Yann Martel is best known for his wildly successful book, Life of Pi. His newest book What is Stephen Harper Reading?, tackles a subject more scary than living in a small boat with a 450 pound tiger. Mr. Martel is trying to understand Stephen Harper’s reading habits. After reading Martel’s introduction, it seems easier to live with the tiger.

Yann Martel and his wildly successful book, Life of Pi – image by indiatvnews.com

The Aim of the Book

In March of 2007 Yann Martel was invited to Ottawa by the Canada Council of the Arts to represent the year 1991, which was the year he received a grant from the council. While there he was brought into the House of Commons to be recognized for his and the other grant recipients contribution to Canada.

Yann Martel was invited to Ottawa by the Canada Council of the Arts – image by twitter.com

During the two-minute recognition that was presented by the Minister for Canadian Heritage, Mr. Martel noticed that little was done to highlight their accomplishments. The Prime Minister barely looked up as Mr. Martel recollects. This was the moment an experiment began.

This lack of luster showing from the government made Yann Martel ponder the question, what are Stephen Harper’s reading habits? In reality Prime Minister Harper has kept his reading habits to himself.

Former Prime Minister Harper – image by theglobeandmail.com

To help guide Mr. Harper along, Martel started sending the prime minister a book every two weeks accompanied with a letter explaining the book choice. So commenced the long experiment and the contents for this book.

In return, Mr. Martel has received two letters, none from Harper himself, showing a minimal appreciation for the books and his letters. Each letter was formal and polite, but not exactly what Yann was looking for. He still had no idea what the prime minister had read. As Yann puts it in the book, “if you want to lead, you must read.” It is as simple as that.

Yann Martel had no idea what the prime minister had read – image by torontosun.com

Making a Private Book Club

Creating a private book club for two was what Yann’s experiment became. The letters that accompanied each book were poignant and encouraging. All fifty-five titles that Mr. Martel had sent to Stephen Harper by the time this book was published have a purpose. Yann admits that he did not pick every title, but opened up to others for suggestions.

From Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych to Michael Ignatieff’s The Lesser Evil, Yann tries to explain why it is important even if Mr. Harper has a natural predisposition to not read it.

Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych – image by audiobookstore.com

When discussing Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, Mr. Martel points out that even though Waiting For Godot is one of literature’s most morose plays its author was an extremely well adjusted man who loved his wife deeply and even enjoyed a good game of tennis. This type of insight is something that sets Martel’s book apart from other book lists.

An example of how touching and unique Martel’s letters are can be found in his letter to Stephen Harper about Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus.

Yann’s letter to Stephen Harper about Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus – image by studylib.net

Martel explains in his letter than he was touring Auschwitz, the ex-Nazi extermination camp, and that Maus is the perfect novel to relate the horror and emotion that came out of the Holocaust. It is a moving letter and a brilliant choice for their book club.

What is Stephen Harper Reading? is an astonishing way of making the Canadian people think about what their leader is influenced by.

This book helped the Canadian people think about what their leader is influenced by – image by amazon.com

Yann Martel knows how to make his reader think critically about their leader without forcing an opinion. Whether the reader is politically active or not, Yann Martel will make them wonder what Prime Minister Stephen Harper is reading and make it important to them.

There is an ongoing blog that contains all the past letters and books Yann Martel has sent with constant updates as new books are sent. For those interested it is certainly worth bookmarking.

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