The other day, while driving and listening to the radio, I heard an interesting interview with Canadian author Yann Martel. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Martel’s Life of Pi, I implore you: run, don’t walk, to Amazon.com and order it. Then patiently await its arrival. It tells the story of a teen-aged Indian boy who finds himself stranded on a life boat in the Pacific Ocean, with an ape, a hyena, and a bengal tiger. Well…it’s about more than that…but I don’t want to ruin it for you. Martel’s text is as hearty and sumptuous as the chicken tikka masala at Namaskar, and possesses a vibrant, potent humanity that I refuse to blemish with a paltry attempt at description. If you haven’t already read it, do so as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.
In the interview, Martel described an event held by the Canadian parliament, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Canada Council for the Arts. Martel and 49 other prominent Canadian artists were present, each one signifying one year of the Council’s existence. Of the 300+ MPs in the legislature, only some 20 odd members were present. Among them was Bev Oda, the Minister for Canadian Heritage, who delivered a 5 minute speech, which both began and ended the tribute.
Feeling that the Council’s contribution to Canadian culture had been given short shrift, Martel focused his attention on Prime Minister Stephen Harper:
The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute, certainly not. I don’t think he even looked up. The snarling business of Question Period having just ended, he was shuffling papers. I tried to bring him close to me with my eyes.
Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares not a jot for the arts.
Feeling that perhaps Prime Minister Harper’s perspective on the arts might be influenced with exposure to its more sublime works, Martel vowed that every two weeks he would send Harper and work of literature, “a book that has been known to expand stillness.” Martel also created a website, www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca, where he will post his suggested reading and any responses from the PM. The first book suggested thus far is The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy. Martel ends the inscription with a compelling charge:
I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We’re all busy. Meditating monks in their cells are busy. That’s adult life, filled to the ceiling with things that need doing. (It seems only children and the elderly aren’t plagued by lack of time—and notice how they enjoy their books, how their lives fill their eyes.) 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. And there are other possibilities, too. Sherwood Anderson, the American writer best known for his collection of stories Winesburg, Ohio, wrote his first stories while commuting by train to work. Stephen King apparently never goes to his beloved baseball games without a book that he reads during breaks. So it’s a question of choice.
My bedroom doesn’t have a nightstand, but less than eight feet from my bed is a makeshift shelf holding more books than I can ever hope to read. I make an effort graze through them in odd moments of leisure, although sometimes it’s hard to find the time. Nevertheless, Martel makes a charismatic argument for reading. I’ll be keeping track of PM Harper’s reading list, and may try to follow along, time permitting, of course.
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