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.