People seem to love booklists. Whenever a longlist or shortlist for a literary prize has been published, newspapers and blogs start buzzing with gossip and book sales jump up. It works this way for the Man Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Prix Goncourt, etc.
We love lists. Reading lists for instance: what was the favourite read of Bertrand Russell? of Winston Churchill? of the Spice Girls? Even President Bush’s holiday reading once hit the news.
Yann Martel, the writer of Life of Pi, invented a new kind of list. Every fortnight since April, 16, 2007 he sends a book by post to the Canadian Prime Minister with a covering letter. He publishes his choice and the letter on a special website: What is Stephen Harper reading?
In March 2007 fifty artists were invited to the House of Commons to help celebrate the fifty years of the Canada Council for the Arts, “that towering institution that has done so much to foster the identity of Canadians”. Those artists — one of them was Yann Martel — all had one time benefited of a grant. The celebration was a let-down. It took some five minutes, enough for a standard speech by the Minister of Culture. The Prime Minister didn’t even look up and was shuffling papers.
Clearly, Yann Martel found this patronizing and humiliating. He writes: “By comparison, the equivalent celebration of a major cultural institution in, say, France would have been a classy, flashy, year-long, exhibition-filled affair with President Chirac trying to hog as much of the limelight as possible.” And he looked at Stephen Harper…
Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts.
But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness.
So now he sends — every other week — a secondhand book with a covering letter to the Prime Minister.
And we, voracious readers, got a new source for inspiration.