Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What is Stephen Harper Reading

In case you haven't heard (and chances are you haven't), there has been a pretty popular meme in the CanLit world for the past couple years regarding Stephen Harper. One day, Booker Prize winning author Yann Martel decided that the Prime Minister of Canada was not a sufficiently educated man, and endeavoured to correct that deficiency. To that end, he started mailing a book a week to the Prime Minister, accompanied by a long winded letter about how that book would help correct some or other fault Martel felt the Prime Minister possessed.

I was never a fan of Martel's stunt. It reeked of arrogance and condescension when he started it, and now that he has a book out detailing his years long bibliostalking, it just seems sad and tired.

Just to pick a book selection at random, take Martel's choice of Christian Bok's Eunoia. The opening of the letter says it all.

Dear Mr. Harper,

Have you ever felt limited by language? I’m sure you have....

And it gets better.

Look, Bok is a nice guy. I had him for a professor, and when we plied him with enough beer, he told us all about reading the dictionary from cover to cover numerous times, and spending eight years building a database that allowed him to separate words by vowel usage. It was an admirable feat, and Eunoia will certainly long have a place in the canon of language poetry, but what it has to do with running a country?... Sorry, but I just don't buy Martel's arguments.

I think John Ivison said it best back in 2007....

Can't judge a reader by his books
John Ivison , National Post
Saturday, Oct. 27, 2007

OTTAWA -Yann Martel is outraged. The Life of Pi author has been sending classic novels to Prime Minister Stephen Harper every two weeks since April, in an act of guerrilla arts advocacy aimed at securing more funding for the world of letters, and has been getting no response.

Mr. Martel would have us believe that by working his way through the prescribed reading list, Mr. Harper would undergo a New Testament-style conversion and boost public arts spending overnight.

Quite how the author thinks reading Animal Farm by George Orwell, a savage attack on statism, would induce anyone to increase state subsidies for the book industry is beyond me. But never mind. In reality, Mr. Martell knows this won't happen, so he is happy to convey to Canadians the impression that the barbarians have breached the gates of 24 Sussex Drive and are now using Pierre Trudeau's old swimming pool. Mr. Harper is left looking like someone who thinks Mr. Martel's excellent Man Booker Prize-winning opus is a study of either mathematics or Greek linguistics.

"I got a feel for a man who has no sense of the arts," Mr. Martel told the Carleton University student newspaper.

But it is Mr. Harper who should be outraged. Provided you take a pretty broad definition of "the arts," the Prime Minister is an avid patron. He is a keen movie-goer, a competent pianist and is currently learning a third language (Spanish). If further culture vulture credentials are required, he once named AC/DC's lilting ballad, Thunderstruck, as his favourite rock song.

That is being facetious -- but no more so than Mr. Martel's public relations campaign. Mr. Martel says he is trying to make suggestions to Mr. Harper's "stillness -- those quiet moments of reflecting on daily struggles and the purpose of life." I don't know about Mr. Martel, but after a day reading fiscal reference tables until my brain ached, I think I'd forgo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych (the reflections of a man dying a slow, agonizing death) or Francoise Sagan's tale of rich French people who have lots of sex but still aren't very happy, Bonjour Tristesse.

Small wonder that when the Prime Minister ditches his briefing books, he picks up Harry Potter or Artemis Fowl to read to the kids (which he does every night, apparently, regardless of workload), in preference to Mr. Martel's recommended reading. Other Harper favourites are said to include mystery novels, thrillers by such writers as Robert Ludlum and Total Hockey -- the Ultimate Hockey Encyclopedia by Dan Diamond. The Prime Ministerial nightstand is also said to contain the obligatory political biographies, such as Alan Greenspan's Air of Turbulence and Peter C. Newman's Secret Mulroney Tapes.

The Prime Minister is probably like a lot of us when confronted with a novel by August Strindberg or Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- we admire it, lay it aside making a mental note to read it at some point in the future and then never pick it up again (though I did labour through Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is about how long it took to read the damn thing).
Do we know Harper doesn't read that many books? Or a sizeable amount? He is an educated fellow, after all.

The issue here is Martel's hubris in prescribing a canon, with the unspoken corollary that only a philistine would read something other than these approved books.

What are Martel's thoughts on the "Great Books" canon, or the push to force students to study those relics white male-dom? It's the same arrogance.

If, say, Harper had agreed to a challenge, and they shared and compared reading lists, that would be one thing. But here, Martel unilaterally decided that Harper was a stupid man who needed some proper education, and he was going to provide it.

Would Martel have done the same for Le petit gars de Shawinigan? He had far less education, and far less of a reputation as a scholar. In fact, old Jean-ny boy had a real reputation as one who preferred to settle disputes with knuckle and skin rather than pen and ink.

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