Monday, 28 January 2008

Parliament Opens: What Is Stephen Harper Reading?

Canada’s 39th Parliament resumes sitting today, so it’s an appropriate time to see what Yann Martel has been sending to Stephen Harper to read. Last spring the Mann Booker prize winning author, struck by how frazzled the Prime Minister was, began sending him a small book every two weeks. The aim was to provide an opportunity for “stillness” at the end of the day, Martel said.

So far this month Martel has sent two books—his 19th and 20th gifts. The first, sent Jan. 7, was Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination, and the second, sent Jan, 21, was The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. As always, Martel sent along letters, explaining his choices.

The first book was compiled from the Massey Lectures which Frye, a noted scholar and literary critic, gave in 1962. “The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in,” Frye writes at one point. “This statement has obvious political implications,” Martel comments in the cover letter. “You see why I said this book might be of interest to you.”

The second book is a work of imagination set in the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. One of the rules Martel has set for himself, he explains in his letter, is to send only fiction because it “is both more personal and more synthesized than non-fiction. … A novel is about Life itself, whereas a history remains about a specific instance of Life. A great Russian novel—remember the Tolstoy I sent you—will always have a more universal resonance than a great history of Russia; you will think of the first as being about you on some level, whereas the second is about someone else.”

To date, Martel has heard nothing from the PM about his gifts, except for a brief letter of acknowledgement for that first novel by Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illych. The man deserves a lot of credit for being so persistent.

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