What Is Stephen Harper Reading?

Now that the Winter Olympics have come to a close, maybe more of the world would have heard of Stephen Harper.  No, no, he isn’t a medal winner.  Just a hockey fan, and, he happens to be Canada’s Prime Minister.

And it’s good time to read this book.  It all started one March day in 2007.  Fifty Canadian artists of all sorts were invited to a Parliamentary session to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Canada Council for the Arts, each of them representing a particular year.

There they were sitting in the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons, waiting for their item to come up on the long agenda of the day.  At 3:00 pm, the business came to the celebration.  All fifty of them were asked to stand up. The Minister for Canadian Heritage, Bev Oda at the time, rose up, acknowledged their presence, and gave a five-minute speech.  Applause.  Then on to the next business item.  Stephen Harper did not even look up at them standing in the Gallery.

The fifty guest artists were incredulous.  Among them was Yann Martel, who received a Canada Council grant in 1991 allowing him to write his first novel.  His literary career reached an admirable high in 2002 when he was awarded The Man Booker Prize for his book Life of Pi.  (CLICK HERE to read one appreciative reader’s response to the book, a personal note from Barack Obama.)

After this incident, driven by frustration, Martel decided to launch a most interesting project.  He started sending Stephen Harper a book every two weeks, with his personal letter introducing  the work, and of course, whenever appropriate, fill him in as to why that’s a good read for a Prime Minister.   With such an intention, one can predict the tone of these letters.  They are mostly sincere, mind you, albeit embedded with the occasional sarcasm, irony, and yes, some condescending subtext.

But overall, these letters to the Prime Minister sent with the books are genuine appeal to the Leader of the country to place more emphasis on the arts. They offer a place of stillness in the busy agenda of a politician.  Martel’s is a gentle voice to remind the prime policy maker the role of the arts, in particular, literature and its appreciation, in the making of a nation, the importance of beauty and the imagination in the building of a vision and in shaping the humanity of her people.

So, it’s not so much as to what Stephen Harper is reading, but what’s on his TBR list.  It remains unknown whether the PM has actually read any of these gifts, although letters of appreciation had been sent to Martel from his office. It’s fun too to read the choices of the titles… and their reasons.  But above all, I’ve enjoyed reading Martel’s insights into how the literary speaks in the context of contemporary political and social landscape.  Here are some examples.  I’ve included a quote or two from Martel’s letter sent with each title:

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm is about collective folly.  It is a political book, which won’t be lost on someone in your line of business.  It deals with one of the few matters on which we can all agree:  the evil of tyranny.

Animal Farm is a perfect exemplar of one of the things that literature can be: portable history.  … in a scant 120 pages, … the reader is made wise to the ways of the politically wicked.  That too is what literature can be: an inoculation.”

The Island Means Minago by Milton Acorn (People’s Poet of Canada)

“But any revolution that uses poetry as one of its weapons has at least one correct thing going for it: the knowledge that artistic expression is central to who and how a people are.”

“… the past is one thing, but what we make of it, the conclusions we draw, is another.  History can be many things, depending on how we read it, just as the future can be many things, depending on how we live it… And it is by dreaming first that we get to new realities.  Hence the need for poets.”

The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye

“Literature speaks the language of the imagination.”

“… the better, the more fertile our imagination, the better we can be at being both reasonable and emotional. As broad and deep as our dreams are, so can our realities become.  And there’s no better way to train that vital part of us than through literature.”

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

“So, more cuts in arts funding… What does $45 million buy that has more worth than a people’s cultural expression, than a people’s sense of who they are?”

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

“Lloyd Jones’s novel is about how literature can create a new world.  It is about how the world can be read like a novel, and a novel like the world.”

The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

“Why a book on music?  Because serious music, at least as represented by new and classical music, is fast disappearing from our Canadian lives… the latest proof of this: the CBC Radio Orchestra is to be disbanded… How much culture can we do without before we become lifeless, corporate drones?  I believe that both in good and bad times we need beautiful music.”

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

“The irony in the story is as light as whipped cream, the humour as appealing as candy, the characterization as crisp as potato chips, but at the heart of it there’s something highly nutritious to be digested:  the effect that books can have on a life.”

“Whenever an independent bookstore disappears, shareholders somewhere may be richer, but a neighbourhood is for sure poorer.”

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

“Speaking of President Obama, it’s because of him that I’m sending you the novel Gilead, by the American writer Marilynne Robinson.  It’s one of his favourite novels.”

“I would sincerely recommend that you read Gilead before you meet President Obama on February 19.  For two people who are meeting for the first time, there’s nothing like talking about a book that both have read to create common ground and a sense of intimacy, of knowing the other in a small but important way.  After all, to like the same book implies a similar emotional response to it, a shared recognition of the world reflected in it. This is assuming , of course, that you like the book.”

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

“Since Julius Caesar is about power and politics, we might as well talk about power and politics.  Let me discuss concerns I have with two decisions your government recently announced.

My first concern is about the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.  New money allocated to the Council is apparently to be spent exclusively on “business-related degrees”…. we’re losing sight of the purpose of a university if we think it’s the place to churn out MBAs.  A university is the repository and crucible of a society, the place where it studies itself.  It is the brain of a society.  It is not the wallet… A university builds minds and souls.  A business employs.”

Louis Riel by Chester Brown and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima

“But I’ve always liked that about books, how they can be so different from each other and yet rest together without strife on a bookshelf.  The hope of literature, the hope of stillness, is that the peace with which the most varied books can lie side by side will transform their readers, so that they too will be able to live side by side with people very different from themselves.”


Yann Martel is still sending books to Stephen Harper every two-weeks.  Other authors he has sent include Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor, Ayn Rand, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Douglas Coupland, Philip Roth, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Michael Ignatieff, Paul McCartney, Dylan Thomas, Laura and Jenna Bush… quite an eclectic selection. Excellent demonstration of how we can be so drastically different in our perspectives and background, and yet can still stand shoulder to shoulder in this vast land of the free.

To read the full list of all the books he has sent, and yes, including this one, CLICK HERE to go to the official site:  What Is Stephen Harper Reading dot ca

What Is Stephen Harper Reading? by Yann Martel, published by Vintage Canada, 2009, 233 pages.


Regarding the role of universities and the humanities as dying disciplines, CLICK HERE to read my post: THE HUMANITIES AS AN ENDANGERED SPECIES.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

11 thoughts on “What Is Stephen Harper Reading?”

  1. Oh Arti. This touches me like nothing has in a while. You know that post I wrote about hope-Esperanza? This guy Martel rekindles hope. This is one of the most beautifully creative and sensitive projects I have ever heard of. Bless you for posting it and making me aware. Bless Mr. Martel. Bless all the thinkers and writers and artists and musicians who keep being and doing and expressing what is divine in humans. Bless Mr. Martel for doing his ongoing best to make a difference in a politician’s life. We are so jaded about our politicians, aren’t we. I was so touched by his recommendation to read Obama’s favorite book before meeting him. What a human thing, to talk about one’s favorite book. Why the Arts? This is why. They are where our humanity lies.


    1. Hi Ruth,

      I think it’s a very worthwhile project… actually every member of Parliament should receive these books together with Martel’s personal letters of recommendations. I’m sure if he needs financial support for this, there are people ready and willing to donate. Mind you, the books Martel sends are all used ones, some with personal markings and underlinings, all the more precious for they have been read and treasured. One condition for the PM is that he cannot sell them but after reading, pass them on to others, thus continuing the gift giving gesture. What a meaningful project this is! If only every politician could get one…



  2. I meant “making me aware” of course, not away, although I am a bit away too.


    Don’t worry, I’ve corrected the word. Have you clicked on the link to the ‘appreciative reader’? I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading the note.



  3. Coincidentally I came across his website the other day and read about this project. What an interesting idea and also interesting to read his descriptions of the books and why he sent them.
    thanks for sharing


    Yes, I’m afraid the website has it all… an up-to-date book list and his letters, and the replies too. eReading scores again. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment!



  4. Arti – where to begin on this blog entry? devoured it and will return to click on the link about the “Harper” book because I’m intrigued. Oh, what wonderful things writers/artists come up with. Sending the PM book suggestions with annotations et al? I love it.
    I love your country.
    the Olympics were wonderful, and I watched stuff I would NEVER watch. Ice dancing? me? yup. And you won the gold. It was wonderful, all of it.
    I digress. I must get back here tomorrow and re-read and re-comment! Hugs to you and your beautiful country who were wonderful hosts with some surreal weather!!!!


    1. oh,

      Thank you for your kind words about my country. I admit you probably have followed the Games closer than I, although I did see that fantastic ice dancing duo. I was more enthused when the Winter Olympics were held right here in Calgary in 1988… I was sitting in the front row during the opening ceremony, right behind the press. A Reuters reporter even took a picture of us using our camera.

      As for the book project, it’s a small book club made up of just Martel and the PM, of course, communication is only one-sided. He gets a lot of book suggestions from people too. I hope the PM did read some of the books sent to him. I’d like to see the project expand into a national movement, with more people doing the same, sending books to their politicians. Now wouldn’t that be nice… a literature-reading Parliament.

      Yes, do click on the link to the project, it’s constantly updated. And don’t miss the other link, a personal note from your literature-reading President to Martel. I look forward to more of your comments!


  5. Arti,

    What a fine list of books — it makes me want to join Martel’s book club!

    Don’t you know Martel is having fun playing tutor? The excerpts of Martel’s letters alone make me want to read his book. I can easily imagine this book of letters could become as prized to me as that other book of letters is to me — Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

    I’m glad to know of this book and the project and the reading list. I’ve never read Life of Pi — but this post has inspired me to do so.

    If I can just grow still with book in lap, this information will seriously enrich and open up my world. What a thought — if Martel were to expand his undertaking to all the key leaders of the world — or at least his next door neighbor…



    1. Janell,


      You know, if you click on the link http://www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca you can see the up-to-date books and letters to the PM. So there you go, eReading scores again.

      Life of Pi is a good read, and, do click on the link to that ‘appreciative reader’.

      I was just thinking about expanding the project to the whole Parliament here, but your idea of all the key leaders of the world is even better!

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. I look forward to some mutual visiting in the days ahead.


  6. Brilliant! Bravo, Yann Martel! I hope Mr. Harper reads his own mail and so gets the point. And of course reads the books.
    I can’t add anything on the importance of the arts that has not already been written by Ruth, except that I agree with her (and you and Northrop Frye and Mr. Martel). Will come back to check out the links…
    Thanks for this, Arti, and yes, thanks for the Olympics, too. They were wonderful to watch. I think I was as proud of the Canadians who won medals (the mogul skier, the ice dancing duo, the figure skater, even the hockey team) as anyone north of the St. Lawrence. But as Yann Martel proves, there is more than one way to “stand on guard” for your beautiful country.


    1. ds,

      You are spot on about various ways to ‘stand on guard’ for this country, and I’m afraid often it looks like sticking a finger into a hole in the dam. I’ve seen all too much about the decline of the humanities and the arts. I wrote 2 posts on the CBC Radio and sent the content of one of my posts CBC Cutting Classical Programs as a letter to the CBC… and what did I get. A letter thanking me for writing but the decision had been made. We can surely voice our opinion, but whether it can lead to a change in policy is very far-fetched I feel.

      Literature and politics, the arts and the bottom line, all too incompatible dualities I’m afraid. But Martel’s insights and persistence are admirable and should be supported by the public and the project expanded even more.


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