44. 101 letters to a prime minister (Yann Martel)

41FByL7OJNL._SL160_“every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a  fine bedside table.  In that space, at night, a book can glow.  And in those moments of docile wakefulness, when we begin to let go of the day, then is the perfect time to pick up a book and be someone else, for a few minutes, a few pages, before we fall asleep.”

Listening to Yann Martel speak about his experience supporting a one sided “busy-busy-busy short book club” with the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was intriguing and inspired me to read about his book suggestions in 101 letters to a prime minister.  In his presentation, at the Grimsby Author Series, Martel shared how it was important for him to know the kind of literature that had nourished the imagination of the leader of Canada.  Martel was frustrated that Harper declined to share his literary tastes and puncutated his feelings saying “people who don’t read are arrogant” and that “a paucity of reading means a paucity of imagination” since “literature makes you live many different lives”.  He admitted that the book club likely would not have continued if Harper had responded quickly but he never responded and the book club continued for 4 years.

“A book is a marvellous tool – in fact, a unique tool, to increase one’s depth of reflection, to help one think and feel”.

Starting in April 2007 and ending in February 2011, Martel sent 101 books to the former PM, never once receiving a personal response from him although he did receive 7 letters from correspondence staff.   Knowing the former PM was very busy leading the country, he diligently chose shorter works beginning with The Death of Ivan Ilych (Ivan Tolstoy), “the story, simply and utterly compelling, of one man and his ordinary end” and ending with Proust, challenging Harper to join him in committing to read the vast 4347 page 6-volume set of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  In the two week intervals between, he sent an eclectic selection of novels, plays, comic books and children’s books including both fiction and non-fiction along with letters filled with his own political commentary, advice and slights to Harper.  I could not help but chuckle that Martel included a Harlequin romance novel and narrative about the fact that over 100 Harlequin romance novels are published each month for readers who appreciate the security of a safe path to a happy ending.  He did criticize the writing and use of adverbs (reminiscent of Stephen King’s comments in On Writing).

“When you are reading, your guard needn’t be up.  You can be entirely yourself.  Even better:  you are totally free.  You can read slowly or quickly, you can reread a section skip it, why you can even throw the book down and pickup another – it’s all up to you”

As a person who enjoys the hunt for quality books in thrift stores to fill our Little Free Library (LFL), I appreciated that Martel chose to send Harper used books.  He did this to make a point that “a used book, unlike a used car, hasn’t lost any of its initial value.  A good story rolls off the lot into the hands of a new reader as smoothly as it was written”.  He also shared that he likes the ideas that others had already enjoyed the same book and are part of a “community of readers… a communion of literature”.  I hope that the community that enjoys our LFL feels the same!

“The mind can be immortal, living forever through ideas.  An idea can leap from mind to mind, going down through the generation, forever keeping ahead of death”.

Martel was quite proud of the hand-written note he had received from the President Obama.  The United States President sent the letter after he had read Life of Pi with his daughter.  Martel not only mentioned in a couple of his letters to Harper but included a copy to the PM who never responded to the letters and books carefully chosen for him.  Martel suggested Harper read Gilead, one of Obama’s favourite novels before meeting him and even suggested that Obama might be jealous of their exclusive bookclub.

“For two people who are meeting for the fist time, there’s nothing like talking about a book that both have read to create common ground and a sense of intimacy, of knowing the other in a small but important way”.

This collection of letters is an interesting compilation of readings which inspire others to pick them up and enjoy, reflect and critique them.  The frustration of Martel is obvious in his comments, lecturing text and tone and I have to wonder if avoiding capital letters in the title is a slight to the former PM when the author’s name is boldly CAPITALIZED.  While the letters are sarcastic at times, comparing his politics to a game of chess where Harper had lost a number of pawns, stating that compromise was not Harper’s way and wondering what would happen in the next election Martel asked the question that perhaps Harper had made the wrong career choice and was a frustrated artist.

Martel infused the book with his own reflections and snippets of his personal life, commenting in one letter that it would be short as his wife’s waters had just broken for their first child and sharing bits of his personal and family history.  While he was away on a book tour, he had fellow Canadian authors (including his wife, Alice Kuipers) provide letters and books giving a few other perspectives to the book club.  He shared a small bio on each author throughout the letters giving the reader additional information to ponder.

Martel ended his book club and said he was “tired of using books as political bullets and grenades”.  He shared the time consuming nature of the process including the choosing and reading the books, followed by contemplation, writing the letters and discussion with his parents who helped with the translations before they were mailed.  All this, just to keep up with his biweekly schedule.  He admitted that the process had been a pleasure but that after sending books for 4  years, he was ready to move on.

Fast forward 5 years and Martel, while speaking about his newest novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, remains frustrated with the former PM’s lack of response.  The author was overtly critical of Harper and questioned what had happened to the books that were carefully selected and shared over the 4 year period.  He shared that he hoped that they were not stowed away in a box in the basement.

“Books are patient.  They have time.  They’ll still be here long after you and I are gone”

As I read the letters and considered the book suggestions, I would like to think that now that Canada has a new PM, that Harper has taken the time to begin reading through the literary gifts and is relaxing and with a good book!   It would be interesting for him to respond with a commentary of his own.  I can’t help but wish that I had followed the blog that was attached to this book club initiative but have enjoyed the book and will add some of Martel’s suggestions to my own, growing TBR pile.

“books, owned or borrowed, old or new, nourish and sustain the soul”


This entry was posted in Author event, Book Club, Grimsby Author Series, Meet the Author, Non-Fiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 44. 101 letters to a prime minister (Yann Martel)

  1. Fascinating post! Be sure to post an update if Harper were to ever respond!

    Liked by 1 person

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