Who has not heard of The Life of Pi? But did you know that author Yann Martel vowed to send the Canadian prime minister books to read for the duration of his term in office.
For those of you who aren’t Canadian, that’s Stephen Harper — the prime minister — but that’s not important. (Really.)
It would be better to think of this as a book of letters that have been written by a reader and sent to a non-reader, each one tucked inside a book, hand-picked and posted.
I’d already heard about the venture. I’d even visited the website a few times. And how could a reader not think it’s a great idea?
But I didn’t pick up the book when it was published. Although now I’m wondering why I waited. It’s very bookish and wholly enjoyable.
The tone is informal and Yann Martel is aware that he is writing to someone who has neither read a lot of fiction nor has a great deal of time to devote to doing so now.
So when he recommends Jane Austen, some of what he writes is already familiar to me. I don’t need to be told this (though I don’t mind the brief refresher):
“So though limited by class and by sex, Jane Austen was able to transcend these limitations. Her novels are marvels of wit and perspicacity, and in them she examined her society with such fresh and engaging realism that the English novel was durably changed.”
What follows is a bit about the book that he has included. No, not Pride and Prejudice. Not Emma. (Although he does say that he hopes the PM will go on to read those.)
What does he send? The Watsons. (It’s the 11th book he sent.) And I do need the background about this unfinished novel of Austen’s, and I’m pleased to have it.
Ultimately the venture is rooted in a belief that art matters, story-telling matters; the author mails these works in the hope that government leaders will make decisions that reflect that belief.
“That is the greatness of literature, and its paradox, that in reading about fictional others we end up reading about ourselves.”
So, yes, ultimately, this is a political work. Well, of course it is. But in such a way that it reaches beyond national borders.
Take this bit, from the letter enclosed with Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo (the 21st book he sent):
“The life of the Canadian people is determined and built by each and every Canadian, one small act at a time. There are twenty-four hours in a day and each one of us chooses how to fill those hours.”
You could substitute any nationality you choose where it says ‘Canadian’ and find meaning in that statement.
(And you might be surprised to find direct references to your own nationality herein. For instance, he chooses Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead because it’s one of American President Obama’s favourite novels.)
Yann Martel has not chosen Political Works; he has chosen the books that populate my TBR list, books that my friends have pressed me to read, books that I already love. (But of course they are political: I know.)
Still not sure it’s the book for you? The text of the letters, that of the few replies he has received, and an update on the project’s status: all available here.
But I”m betting that just serves as a taster. You’ll want to add this collection of letters to your TBR list. And then you’ll be adding the books he has recommended in those letters to your list as well.
I’d say “sorry”, but really the only thing I’m sorry about is that I didn’t get to this collection sooner.
Which of the books on his list is closest to the top of your TBR list now?
(Mine would be Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I’m thinking about re-reading.)
Yann Martel’s What Is Stephen Harper Reading? Random House, 2009.