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‘Enlarge the stillness:’ Help select a reading list for the leader of your choice.

February 2, 2011

Yann Martel

Don’t you hate a quitter? I’m referring to Yann Martel, who has discontinued his quest to make Stephen Harper into a better man, and presumably a better leader, by sending the Canadian prime minister a book every two weeks since 2007. Why abandon such a great idea?

Part of the reason Martel is pulling the plug at the 100th book (Scorched, a play by Wajdi Mouawad, translated from the French by Linda Gaboriau) is that Harper never personally responded. I get the idea Yann’s spurned little ego is bruised, and there’s the assumption, left unstated in any of the coverage I’ve seen, that Harper has read none of Martel’s offerings.

Plus, Martel says,  he has  a second child on the way, he’s writing a new book, and I can only assume he’s still stinging from the critical response to his last novel, Beatrice and Virgil (“misconceived and offensive,” said Michiko Kakutani!)

Martel signs off with characteristic self-important pomposity:  “”It’s true, too, that I’m tired of using books as political bullets and grenades. Books are too precious and wonderful to be used for long in such a fashion.”

Whatever that means. In any case, I’ll agree that 100 is a nice round number, and we should let Mr. Martel go restore his soul by retiring to his study and stroking the Man Booker Prize he won in 2002 for The Life of Pi. Or maybe he should visit the set where Ang Lee is filming the movie version.

But we shouldn’t let the idea die. To his credit, Martel took this project very seriously (but then, he takes everything very seriously), as you can see from the website What Is Stephen Harper Reading?

Not only does Martel’s recommended books make a superb reading list (everything from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich at no. 1 to Who Shot Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery or Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal). He also includes a substantial essay of appreciation with each one.

As Martel explains at the webset, he decided to send Harper books because the prime minister seemed “dulled by busyness,” sounding and governing “like one who cares little for the arts.” Martel is smart enough not to presume to “educate” his chief of state (“that would be arrogant”). Instead his stated aim is to “expand” the prime minister’s “stillness.”

Whatever THAT means. Murky motives aside, though, I think Martel is on to a great notion here, and we should gratefully pick up his project and continue it. I agree that education is the least reason to read, or to suggest a book to someone else. The credo here is two fold:

First and by a wide margin foremost, the only real reason to read is pure hedonic pleasure. That doesn’t mean we should always read what’s easy — where’s the fun in that? — but ever the end objective of the serious reader is enjoyment. Secondly, the purpose of literature — and, indeed, any art — is to evoke an aesthetic reaction. In other words, to make you feel. Thinking comes later, to explain or justify what you feel, and is never anywhere near as important.

So let’s put together a reading list for some heads of state. I impose this restriction: No overtly ideological books. So don’t suggest Atlas Shrugged for President Obama, or Down and Out In Paris and London for David Cameron .

Hmmm…let’s see. Where should we start? What head of state might need a good book right about now….? I know! Hosni Mubarak! While the Egyptian strongman is mustering his nerve to do the right thing, I respectfully suggest he consider the following titles:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera; Walden; or, Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau; The Swallows of Kabul, by Yasmina Khadra; Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare; Max and the Cats, by Moacyr Scliar; Catch-22, by Jospeh Heller; Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger; The Plague, by Albert Camus; The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene; The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon;  Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; The Conformist, by Alberto Moravia.

Okay, okay, some of those books, especially the last two, come close to violating my only rule, but Marquez and Moravia are such great writers I think we’ll let them slip in. Here, to lighten the load, I’ll toss in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, by Mario Vargas Llosa; Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim; and –what the hell, everybody loves Jo — Harry Potter and and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling.

Join the fun! Select a head of state, then suggest six or eight or ten (or 100) books you think might “expand their stillness.” And share with us, while you’re at it.

Besides, consider this: If heads of state spent more time reading, they might get up to less mischief.



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