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Stephen Harper's Reading List

Question: Why have you been sending books to the Canadian \r\nprime minister?

Yann Martel:  Yes, exactly, especially\r\n fiction.  Why?  Because fiction, art, is the best way to explore the \r\nother.  So, one of the books that I sent Prime Minister Harper of \r\nCanada, was "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison, which is about a \r\n12-year-old black girl in urban Ohio, I think in the ‘50’s.  And that as\r\n far from Stephen Harper’s, who was an empowered, white, middle-aged \r\nmale in Canada, that’s as far as far a distance likely as you can get in\r\n North America.  Well, no matter, you read that novel, you read "The \r\nBluest Eye," and you are that 12-year-old black girl from a highly \r\ndysfunctional, African-American family.  So for a few pages, you’ve been\r\n that black girl.  The same thing with, you know, Zora Neale Hurston, \r\n"Their Eyes Were Watching God," wonderful language, you are an \r\nAfrican-American speaking in the African-American vernacular.  You read,\r\n "Maus," by Art Spiegelman, another book I sent Harper, you are a Jew in\r\n Europe during the Holocaust.

So if a world leader does not read \r\nfiction, how do they know what it means to be the other?  In a broad, \r\nemotional way, not just factually, you read here, another one, Chinua \r\nAchebe, "Things Fall Apart," a fantastic, fantastic Nigerian novel about\r\n the encounter between Nigeria and England during the time of \r\ncolonialism.  How one flawed society met another flawed society, it’s an\r\n amazingly powerful, even-handed... it’s not a screed against \r\ncolonialism, it’s extraordinarily even handed about the tragedy of two \r\npeople that met who did not manage to meet each other, did not manage to\r\n communicate.  If you don’t read any of that kind of stuff, how do you \r\nknow the world?  How do you know the possibilities of the world?  How \r\ncan you understand the other?  Therefore, how can you get your vision?  \r\nWhat kind of blinkered vision do you have if you’ve never read a novel, a\r\n poem, a play?

You know, we can’t be led by people—and let’s be \r\naccurate here, what I’m naming here are middle class, white males—we \r\ncan’t be led by middle class, white males who have no vision beyond a \r\ntechnocratic, economic vision.  Otherwise, they will lead us like, as if\r\n we were a corporation where the bottom line is profit.  And the bottom \r\nline of society, of us as a people, an American people, a Canadian \r\npeople, a Paraguayan people, what you want, is not an economic bottom \r\nline, it’s a cultural one, it’s an existential one.  And that economics \r\nis one part of it, you cannot have governments that care nothing about \r\neconomics, that would be crazy.  But you can’t just be about economics. \r\n You know, it has to be about "What are we here for?"  And we are here \r\nto be together, to talk, to try to understand life.

You know, \r\nculture is not just money for the National Endowment for the Arts. \r\nCulture is everything, of which the economy is only a component.  So a \r\nleader who knows nothing about the arts, to me, that is scary.  And so \r\nlook at Barack Obama, bless the man, he wrote to me, he wrote me a \r\nletter about "Life of Pi." I’m not even American, he had nothing to \r\ngain, he just wrote to me because he liked my book and he wrote to me.  \r\nAnd look at his language, look at his vision.  I’m not saying that \r\nbecause you read books you will be a good leader.  If that were so, you \r\nknow, literary, you know, reviewers at the New York Times would all be \r\npresidents.  No, that’s not the case, but, so, it’s not that readers \r\nmake, reading makes you a leader, but to lead, you must have read.  To \r\nlead you must read, because that nourishes your vision.  So that’s what \r\nI’m trying to point out in this campaign, which there’s a blog, \r\nWhatIsStephenHarperReading.com, one word, what is Stephen, Stephen with a\r\n P-H, it’s a blog, you’ll see all the letters I’ve written, with the \r\nbooks that I send him every two weeks, and it asks people, "What do we \r\nwant of our leadership?"  I think we want people who have a breadth of \r\nvision that you get by reading.

Question: Has he \r\nresponded to you? 

Yann Martel:  No, not at all, I’ve\r\n received five replies from his office, none from the man himself.  And \r\nas I said, the contrast between Barack Obama, to whom I’ve never \r\nwritten, who writes to me, a handwritten note. I must be the first \r\nperson in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to get a letter from the sitting \r\npresident of the United States.  One handwritten note from my own prime \r\nminister, to whom I’ve sent 79 books with 79 letters—nothing.  The \r\ncontrast couldn’t be starker.

Recorded April 13, 2010

Why has the "Life of Pi" author been sending novels to the Canadian prime minister?

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