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What is Stephen Harper Reading?: Yann Martel's Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister and Book Lovers of All Stripes

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“I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We’re all busy. But 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, somewhere else, for a few minutes, a few pages, before we fall asleep.”

From the author of Life of Pi comes a literary correspondence — recommendations to Canada’s Prime Minister of great short books that will inspire and delight book lovers and book club readers across our nation.

Every two weeks since April 16th, 2007, Yann Martel has mailed Stephen Harper a book along with a letter. These insightful, provocative letters detailing what he hopes the Prime Minister may take from the books — by such writers as Jane Austen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Stephen Galloway — are collected here together. The one-sided correspondence (Mr. Harper’s office has only replied once) becomes a meditation on reading and writing and the necessity to allow ourselves to expand stillness in our lives, even if we’re not head of government.

240 pages, Paperback

First published November 3, 2009

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About the author

Yann Martel

55 books4,640 followers
Yann Martel is the author of Life of Pi, the #1 international bestseller and winner of the 2002 Man Booker (among many other prizes). He is also the award-winning author of The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (winner of the Journey Prize), Self, Beatrice & Virgil, and 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Born in Spain in 1963, Martel studied philosophy at Trent University, worked at odd jobs—tree planter, dishwasher, security guard—and traveled widely before turning to writing. He lives in Saskatoon, Canada, with the writer Alice Kuipers and their four children.

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5 stars
144 (30%)
4 stars
171 (35%)
3 stars
116 (24%)
2 stars
26 (5%)
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19 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 45 reviews
Profile Image for Michele.
95 reviews15 followers
February 4, 2010
The best part of this book is the concept. Martel was challenged by a reader to defend his "book club" with the PM. He asks "Is asking Stephen Harper to account for his reading habits irrelavent? Worse: is it improper and dishonorable, attacking the private man rather than his public policies?" I really admire his answer: "As lon as someone has no power over me, I don't care what they read, or if they read at all... But once someone has power over me, then, yes, their reading does matter to me because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do".

Each of Martel's letters to the PM is unique. Sometimes he talks about the literature, sometimes he talks about genre, sometimes about politics in general, and sometimes he talks about specific policies that the PM has enacted, particularly as they affect the arts.

I did add a few books to my reading last based on what Martel says about them, but the value of this text lies less in Martel's choice of books as in his explanations of why these texts, and more generally, literature, are important.
Profile Image for Mary Lou.
202 reviews
February 11, 2016
For several years Martel has maintained a private, and very one-sided, book club with Stephen Harper. This book is a record of the letters he’s sent to accompany the second-hand copies of the actual books he’s also sent as recommended prime ministerial reading. The list is odd, and oddly touching, two of the criteria for choosing books being that they have something important to say and that they be short - because a PM has limited reading time. Martel insists that, while a private citizen’s reading material should be private, a person who is in a position of leadership and public trust should be required to read widely and to make public what s/he reads. Makes sense to me - I’d certainly like to think that people who are making important decisions have been exposed to the thinking of thoughtful people and might, therefore, be able to make thoughtful, informed, and humane decisions. Martel uses his letters not only to give a brief and often illuminating discussion of the meaning and merits of each book, but also to muse on an array of topics obviously close to his heart - why people read, how art and life intertwine, how reading promotes and allows “stillness” (according to M. an essential quality for creativity to happen), the importance of teachers and education, how art and openness are essential to civil society, ... . Mostly the book made me feel that I have a lot left to read, and that I don’t think deeply enough about what I have read. The books on his list that I have not yet read I’ve added to my reading list. Those that I have read are:
Animal Farm - George Orwell
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The Cellist of Sarajevo - Steven Galloway
To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison
A Modest Proposal - Jonathan Swift
Master Pip - Lloyd Jones
The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennet
The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck
Jane Austen, a life - Carol Shields
Julius Caesar - William Shakespeare
Of the twelve books on this list, nine are books I’ve read more than once. Maybe that’s a comment of a sort on the quality of M.’s suggestions.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,412 followers
March 10, 2015
I read this as it was being published on Martel'w website. It was unfailingly interesting to see what he was recommending, and why. I especially enjoyed hearing Martel's growing pique at the long-life of Harper's political seat...Martel couldn't conceive of a populace that would re-elect a man of Harper's gifts (or not).

I loved that Martel took the time to structure something for both Harper and Canadians in general about how best to go about informing themselves. It was meant to be a short-term project that became a labor of love...love not for Harper, but for freedom of thought and support for arts of all kinds. I just like the way this man thinks.

I am always on the look out for what Martel will come up with.
Profile Image for Mark.
99 reviews3 followers
July 1, 2021
Several years ago, Yann Martel was honoured, along with other artists, in the House of Commons. He noticed that Stephen Harper really don't care or even notice their presence so he embarked upon a mission to introduce him to new and great books by sending him a new piece of literature every two weeks.

This book is a compilation of the letters that Martel included along with the books that he sent. They lay out why he chose the books and often tie them in to Canadian politics or events Martel would deem relevant to Harper's life. The letters are unique in that they're written less like a constituent to a politician, but more like a friend recommending a book to another friend.

Overall a very interesting list of books and it led to me adding more than a dozen to my 'want to read' list based on his recommendations.
Profile Image for Ben.
Author 10 books10 followers
March 28, 2010

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

A review by Ben Antao

Yann Martel, 46, the 2002 Man Booker prize winner for his novel Life of Pi, has published an interesting non-fiction book titled What is Stephen Harper Reading?, a series of letters to the Prime Minister of Canada urging him to find time to fill his mind with good books. Martel’s recommendations span an eclectic spectrum of novels, plays, poetry, short stories, children’s books, memoir, biography, history and philosophy.

What excited and impressed me is that his letters running to about 900 words on average are incisive essays of literary criticism at its best. Of the 55 books he’s sent to the PM over a two-year period from April 2007, I’d say I’ve read more than half of them and liked his critical observations on the values of reading them. Authors range from Tolstoy, Orwell, Jane Austen, Gabriel Marquez, Voltaire, Harper Lee, Hemingway, Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Dylan Thomas, Toni Morrison, Pearl S. Buck and Shakespeare.

Having read his Life of Pi, I’d say the quality of his prose in this book reminded me of the English essayists, Lamb and Hazlitt, whose essays in literary criticism also sparkled like gems of insightful prose.

In an Introduction giving a rationale for his action, Martel writes:

“Stephen Harper must have pockets of solitude and idleness during which he contemplates life. There must be times when his thinking goes from the instrumental—how do I do this, how do I get that?—to the fundamental—why this, why that? In other words, he must have some moments of stillness. And since I deal in books, reading and writing them, and since books and stillness go well together, I decided, by means of good books, to make suggestions that would inspire stillness in Stephen Harper.”

If the above doesn’t inspire you to read Martel’s book, neither may my brief review.

Profile Image for Ubalstecha.
1,612 reviews15 followers
February 13, 2011
Yann Martel is a Canadian publishing superstar. Author of Life of Pi, which has won a bucketful of awards, he started a campaign on April 16, 2007 to get Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to pay more attention to the arts, for which his conservative government seem to almost take glee in cutting funding.

His method was to start a book club, one where he would send a book every two weeks to Stephen Harper with an accompanying letter explaining why Martel had chosen the book and some of the history surrounding the novel and its author. Martel also published the book selection and accompanying letter on a blog. He has also chronicled any responses he got from the Prime Minister, although most of those came from staffers rather than Stephen Harper himself.

The book then is a publishing of the first 55 of the books Martel has sent. And to read this is to listen to a sometimes condescending, sometimes earnest pleading of someone who loves literature who is trying to reach out to the someone who has very different views than him. The problem is there are times that Martel comes off as talking down to Harper, and that turns the reader off quite a bit.

The value of this book is the reading list it provides. The list of books is not narrowed down to one genre or origin. Fiction, Non-Fiction, Canadian, International, Classic, Modern, Martel has pulled from a very broad spectrum and that is where the richness lies. For us the reader to push ourselves out of our comfort zone readingwise, broadening our minds as Martel hopes to broaden Harper's.

A quick note: Martel has recently announced that he is ending his book club after four years and 99 books. Which is sad, if only because the list of books that we all should look at has ended.
Profile Image for Kadi_d.
2 reviews1 follower
December 23, 2012
A wonderful collection of books I now want to read accompanied by delightfully well thought out ironic/cynical/sarcastic letters to my favorite douchebag.
Profile Image for Kelli.
71 reviews
July 21, 2020
I would like to know if Stephen Harper read any of the choices Mr. Martel sent. I know I added a few to my reading list.

I love Mr. Master's writing style. I appreciated his honesty regarding the books he does not like, but still recommends because some books still need to be read and they help refine your tastes. In some ways it's like a high school English reading list.... a few classics, a few local authors, a few different styles, all worthy in some way. Experimenting with authors and styles have lead to me some beautiful books that I would not have have discovered if I just followed the bestseller lists.
Profile Image for Fábio de Carvalho.
198 reviews7 followers
August 20, 2014
Avec son concept original et pertinent, Yann Martel nous suggère, collatéralement, plusieurs lectures intéressantes, mais le fait avec sa plume prétentieuse porte-parole d'un monde philosophique déconnecté de la réalité et ce à un point tel ou on en vient à ressentir une certaine pitié envers Stephen Harper.

Je suis un passionné de littérature et si un inconnu notoire initiait avec moi un club de lecture par correspondance, je lui répondrais certainement avec plaisir. S'il s'agissait d'un homme de théâtre notoire quelconque qui me suggérait avec acharnement et condescendance d'assister à de diverses représentations d'un art que je n'apprécie pas (à savoir le théâtre), je ne daignerais peut-être pas non plus lui répondre.

Il ne m'est donc pas difficile de considérer qu'une personne n'étant pas passionnée de littérature n'ait pas jugé nécessaire ou pertinent de répondre au condescendant Yann Martel au courant de son dialogue monologué.
22 reviews
August 4, 2016
I don't quite know how to rate this book. On one hand, there are some great selections made. Good essays on the books chosen are included. On the other hand, this is more than a little condescending. I understand the root of this was the author's irritation at (what was) the current government's lack of interest or acknowledgment for the arts. Fine, I get that. However, he is running a country and never asked you to form him a book club. I mean, what is the guy supposed to have responded with? What would have appeased you? This is such a great idea to get people more steeped in literature, and from such a wonderful Canadian author to boot, but it decreases the value, at least for me, that underneath it all, its an attack.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
53 reviews42 followers
October 22, 2014
A delightful book--I love Yann Martel! The impetus was an event attended by Martel and the (still) Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. Harper appeared to Martel bored with the arts. Martell vowed to educate Harper by mailing him biweekly books with commentaries about the book. The commentaries serve as political bullets. Unfortunately, there has been a dearth of replies from the Honorable Harper such that, after four years of a largely solo correspondence, Martell ceased this activity in February of this year.
Profile Image for Genevieve.
66 reviews3 followers
May 13, 2011
Reading the French translation of the book.
Profile Image for Marc.
155 reviews2 followers
October 15, 2019
Surprise! Je me suis fait prendre à lire ce livre, a priori rébarbatif, comme si ma cravate s'était retrouvée emmêlée dans le maillage d'un tricot de chaussette! J'exagère, mais c'est ça la littérature, et Yann Martel la manie de façon exquise. Je disais "rébarbatif", parce que l'objet de l'ouvrage - du moins de son titre - le fut (rébarbatif) pour moi durant son règne et je n'allais pas lire en sus un livre à son sujet. De plus, je ne lis quasiment jamais les biographies et les essais : c'est comme travailler. Enfin, je ne me suis pas épris de l'écriture de Yann Martel à l'occasion de son succès mondial 'Life of Pi', au contraire, j'ai abandonné sa lecture et j'ai donné le livre (pourtant j'ai bien aimé le film qui en a été tiré). Mais ce livre-ci instille une intelligence sensible, un humour fin, une sagesse même, au détour de banales petites phrases épistolaires. J'ai souligné de nombreux passages qui, comme dirait L. Cohen, sont des fentes qui laissent entrer la lumière. Par exemple, au sujet de l'imagination d'un premier ministre : "J'ai le droit de m'enquérir de votre imagination, parce que vos rêves pourraient devenir mes cauchemars." Au sujet de la musique contemporaine qui "ressemble à deux tracteurs qui font l'amour". Et quel bijou que le dernier paragraphe de cette œuvre qu'il qualifie de "club du livre solitaire" : "Je dois vite clore cette lettre. Ma compagne, Alice, vient de perdre ses eaux et notre premier enfant, un garçon, Théo, s'en vient. Un enfant est le meilleur roman qui soit, une formidable intrigue et d'énormes possibilités de développement du personnage. Je dois m'en occuper."
Profile Image for itchy.
1,699 reviews25 followers
October 15, 2022
eponymous sentence:
p13: But the question still nags and needs to be answered: is it anyone's business what Stephen Harper is reading, has read, or if he reads at all?

truncated words:
p142: But like may words that we use all the time--good, fair, just, for exampl--if we look a little closer, we find that behind the cliché lies a philosophical odyssey that goes as far back as human thinking.

p188: This participation, the extent to which one can mesh one's life and dreams with a song, explains why something so shor--most of the Beatles' early songs are less than two minutes long--can go so deep so quickly.

p213: The life of an author should not normally be conflated with his work, but a healthy writer who, at the age of forty-five and at the height of his fame, commits suicide by ritual disembowelment and beheadin--what is popularly called harakiri--after taking over a military base and exhorting the army of his country to overthrow the government, cannot but attract attention for reasons other than his books.

p212: Book 53 and 54:
Louis Riel
by Chester Brown
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea
by Yukio Mishima
translated by John Nathan

A list of a little less than 60 books--half of which I've not heard of, admittedly--and I have to admit I've read only about three of them. Gotta get out more.
Profile Image for CarolynAnn.
528 reviews1 follower
February 26, 2018
3.5 really (I need more options)
Our bookclub was reading all Canadian authors in homage to Canada 150 (yes, we only started in September) and we wanted to read something by Yann Martel since he is considered one of our best authors. Since we'd already read Life of Pi, I found this one to add to the list, mainly because I thought it sounded quite intriguing. And, certainly, that is how I would describe it... I found certain chapters very interesting and quite humerous (in a sarcastic way). I also appreciated the preface and the lack of recognition for the Arts in Canada which sparked this project of Martel's (sending the Prime Minister a book every second week). So, this story is a collection of the letters that Martel included with each book he sent... and while I don't know if he ever really expected a reply from Stephen Harper, it's interesting to see why he picked each book. Some of it got a bit repetitive in my mind and some of the choices / letters didn't seem to be relevant to his point, in my mind. However, I have to say I liked it better than I thought I would ... Martel is a very good writer in my opinion.
696 reviews10 followers
April 3, 2020
This book was the voice of reason for me, with respect to the arts at that time. Thought and reason seemed to be in short supply in the political world and here was an author who clearly found that lack unacceptable. What a welcome bit of humour and wisdom to savour and enjoy. Also it made me feel less alone in a big bustling city.
181 reviews
April 19, 2019
Funny ( sending up Harper ) but inspiring as it gives you a whole raft of books to read, with descriptions. You no doubt have read many if not most but it is a god guide to some really great books.
Profile Image for Charu Uppal.
23 reviews
August 28, 2019
Started reading it when it was still a website. Heard about it on an NPR story. Started following the blog, but lost track. Was so happy to find it as a book. The book takes some of the most read and respected books from around the world and provides a summary contextualising the reason why the book should be read. If want a list of books to read, this is it. If you are a Yann Martel fan, even better!
Profile Image for Michèle.
Author 91 books35 followers
March 5, 2010
(English below)

Que lit Stephen Harper? par Yann Martel. 258 pages

Un court aperçu par Martel de livres qui sont tous intéressants, porteur d’une facette de l’humanité. Je ne les lirai jamais tous, mais la sensibilité de Martel affleure en surface, et son appréciation du métier d’écrivain (et sa dépréciation dans notre société).

L’élément déclencheur? Un moment d’appréciation des artistes pour les 50 ans du CAC, dans la chambre des Communes. Le PM (qui aime tant les artistes!) y assistait, sans montrer le moindre intérêt. Il était ailleurs dans sa tête… Yann Martel a décidé de lui envoyer deux livres par mois, pour lui prouver que les écrivains, les conteurs d’histoires apportent des moments de quiétude dans notre vie mouvementées.

Les auteurs que j'ai envie de lire dans sa liste.

Jeannette Waterson
GAbriel Garcia Marques, Chronique d'une mort annoncée
Glgamesh, traduction de Mitchell
Anthony Burgess, Orange mécanique


L'espérance de la littérature, l'espoir de la quiétude, c'est que la paix que les livres les plus divers peuvent partager côte à côte transformera leurs lecteurs, afin qu'eux aussi soient capables de vivre côte à côte avec des gens qui sont bien différents d'eux.

The book give an overview of the various literary production, even if we may not have read all those!
Profile Image for Anda.
58 reviews10 followers
April 22, 2016
- By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept - Elizabeth Smart
- Bonjour Tristesse - Francoise Sagan
- Short and Sweet - 101 Very Short Poems - Simon Armitage
- Artists and Models - Anais Nin
- Birthday Letters - Ted Hughes
- To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
- Gilgamesh - an english version by Derrek Hines
- The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror - Michael Ignatieff

"If the earth could gather itself up, could bring together every animal, every mountain and valley, every plain and ocean, and twist itself into a fine point, and at that fine point grasp a pen, and with that pen begin to write, it would write like Tolstoy." - Book 30, The Keutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

"The great thing aboout reading books is that it makes us better than cats. Cats are said to have nine lives. What is that compared to the girl, boy, man, woman who reads books? A book read is a life added to one's own. So it takes only nine books to make cats look at you with envy." - Book 15, Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Profile Image for Vicky.
550 reviews5 followers
September 6, 2013
This book is hard to find since it was never published in an American edition but it is a book that should be in all libraries and read by every politician. Martel puts it quite succinctly "To citizens who aspire to be successful leaders, this is the simplest way I can put it: if you want to lead, you must read." The letters are often funny and include so many insights into authors and reading. I am happy to say I now have my copy autographed. Martel was Montana State University's 2013 freshman convocation speaker.
He also came to the public library the next morning for a very intimate question and answer program that ranged from some very funny stories about the movie and Academy Awards , his 2010 book, Beatrice and Virgil and his new book
Highs Mountains of Portugal (the book he had gone to India to write initially those many years ago).
Profile Image for Hayden Ellington.
31 reviews35 followers
March 5, 2012
This book was very interesting, as the five stars prove; it was an amazing book for me. I had many books to read before reading this book, but now the list suddenly got bigger. It was someone who recommended it to me and I borrowed it from her. It's almost sad she wants it back, even my mom wants to have a look at it before a return it.

The books is actually a non-fiction and the letters written by Yann Martel are very nice and his opinions very interesting. A couple of his letters made me pause so I could think and see what my opinions were on the same fact. Also the project in itself is such a cute, marvelous one. Sending letters and usually just one book per two weeks... It takes commitment. Almost more so with Stephen Harper when you received just a couple of letters of return.
Profile Image for Ginger.
429 reviews290 followers
January 19, 2015
I will read basically any book on the love of reading. Martel certainly recommends a host of books that I plan on adding to my reading list, but also gives a frequent gems of commentary on the act of reading and writing, from an author's perspective. I could have lived without his constant politics (a personal pet peeve of mine is when non-Americans feel the need to criticize and comment on U.S. politics), but I suppose the topic is hard to stay away from when you are writing the Prime Minister.
Profile Image for Sirish.
43 reviews
May 22, 2015
Read every one of these reviews/essays while the website was still live. I am not a great admirer of Martel's writing, having had lacklustre experiences with Life of Pi and Beatrice and Virgil, but here his casual narration fits in perfectly. It also helps that Martel loves not only these books, but also the idea of books and believes in their power to salvage humanity, and I personally think that the medium of essay suits his talents best. It's a pity you have to buy a book now, but I still think its worth the effort if only for the phenomenal essay on Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time.
Profile Image for Cynthia.
97 reviews
May 30, 2011
Yann Martel, the author of "The Life Of Pi", clearly wrote this book for book lovers in a format of letters to our prime minister, Stephen Harper. It was very interesting in terms of response from our Prime Minister himself. I enjoyed Mr.Martel's view on such books including Animal Farm, etc. It is very likable, and this book is also somethings of value, since it is a Red Maple Book. Clearly, this is an enjoyable read and information source for all book lovers.
Profile Image for Ryn.
46 reviews22 followers
February 2, 2013
Great concept!! I am Canadian. Steven Harper is Calgarian. I also live in Calgary. It was interesting enough on those levels to me at first, for those reasons.

Reading it, gave me new reasons to like it. A book recommending other books is a delight. Especially when reasons for recommending them, are equally interesting to read. Loved the reality of this author's interaction with the Prime Minister. Great idea; wish I had thought of it!
110 reviews
August 18, 2010
I wanted to read this book as soon as I saw the title. There are only a couple of books on the reading list - that I have actually read, and only a couple that I intend to read. I did like the premise of the book and the fact that Yann sent a letter to the Prime Minister with each book. There are a couple of books on the list I intend to tackle - in the audio version probably.
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