Wednesday, 20 February 2008

What is Stephen Harper Reading? Hot Thoughts or Cool Reflections

What is Stephen Harper reading? Some pretty hot stuff, if he’s plunged into the latest book that Yann Martel has sent him—or some very intellectual musings, if he’s begun reading the offering before that.

You’ll remember that Martel began sending a book every two weeks last spring when he decided that Harper needed to have something good to read before bedtime that would promote “stillness.” In early February, Martel sent the Prime Minister Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

“Marcus Aurelius was a man of great ability selected to be Roman emperor. In other words, he was a politician, and, like you, a busy one; he spent much of his time battling barbarian hordes on the frontiers of the empire,” Martel says in his cover letter. “But at the same time, he was a thinking man—with a penchant for philosophy—who put his thoughts down on the page. He was a writer.” The book, Martel says, is “the perfect book for you, Mr. Harper. A practical book on thinking, being and acting by a philosopher-king.”

But this week, Martel sent something quite different: Artists and Models, by Anaïs Nin. It is very cold in Saskatchewan where Martel is living now, he writes, and this book is something to warm things up a bit. Nin, a diarist and novelist, wrote abundantly and freely about her life in France and the United States. Some of it is “Hot stuff. Kinky stuff,” Martel writes. This book may leave Harper cold, he acknowledges, but “it bears noting that while covering our loins and our hearts with clothes is often useful—it’s minus 23 degrees Celsius outside as I write these words—there is the risk that they are also hiding, perhaps burying, an essential part of us, one that does not think but rather feels. Clothes are the commonest trappings of vanity. When we are naked, we are honest. That is the essential quality of these lustful stories of Nin, embellished or wholly invented though they might be: their honesty.”

It will be interesting to see if either of these books gets a response—not likely, seeing that Harper’s office has only acknowledged the first offering, The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy. But the idea of Harper starting out first with Marcus Aurelius and then turning to Anaïs Nin in bed is mind-blowing, as we used to say.

Tonight, however, I’m returning to the Tolstoy book in the first of a series of book discussions in French at the Kirkland Library in suburban Montreal. This is the third time I’ve led such a discussion, and each time I see more things in the book. It was great choice to kick off Martel’s Stephen Harper book club.

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