Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Yann Martel's Modest Proposal So We All Can Know Our Leader Better: An Official Prime Ministers' Reading List

Ayn Rand’s Anthem is the 38th book that Yann Martel has sent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his one-man campaign to provide a little interesting and helpful reading. The project began when Harper appeared harried during a Canada Council for the Arts event in which Martel participated: the Man Booker Prize winner thought a short, thought-provoking book sent every two weeks would give the PM a little “stillness” for reflection just before he went to sleep.

Martel’s choice before Anthem was Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, so it probably should be no surprise that Martel has expanded this fortnight’s offering into a suggestion that Canada set up a Prime Ministers’ Reading List.

“(W)e expect a Prime Minister to have a fair knowledge of the history and geography of Canada, to know something about economics and public administration, about current events and foreign affairs, the financial assets of a Prime Minister are accountable to us, so why shouldn’t his or her imaginative assets also be accountable?” Martel writes.

“If you haven’t read, now or earlier, any of the books I have suggested, or books like them…then what is your mind made of? What materials went into the building of the dreams you have for our country?...These are not questions one is usually entitled to ask, but once someone has power over me, then, yes, I do have the right to probe your imagination, because your dreams may become my nightmares.”

Of course, setting up the list, administering it and checking to see that the PM actually does the reading would raise a whole lot of problems, but Martel—as Swift did in his comic and shocking treatise on how to solve the problems of poverty in Ireland—answers objections to his proposal.

He admits that Harper might feel like shouting “I have no time for this nonsense, ” But, Martel continues, "as I said to you in my very first letter, there is a space next to every bed where a book can be lying in wait. And I ask you again: what is your mind made of?"

It is highly unlikely that Martel will get an answer: he got one response to his generous gifts. A short letter of acknowledgement was sent by one of the PM’s assistants. But since then there has been silence.

For a man who is so smart, Harper certainly doesn’t know anything about politeness—nor does he appreciate the wisdom and pleasure that literature can bring all of us, it seems more and more certain. But I’ll lay you odds that he’s read Anthem already. As Martel notes: "Rand appeals mostly to two disparate groups of readers: adolescents in the throes of carving out their individuality, and right-wing American capitalists bent on making and keeping too much money.” I’m sure Harper was the former and its clear he’s the lackey of the latter.

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