About 18 months ago, Canadian author Yann Martel, likely best known for his Booker Prize-winning novel "Life of Pi" began an interesting project. Twice a month, he mails Prime Minister Stephen Harper a novel accompanied by a letter wherein Martel explains why he thinks that particular book is important.
Martel, who maintains a website for this project, has now sent the PM about 35 books whose topics are not only wide-ranging but fascinating in their diversity. "Animal Farm" by George Orwell is a recent and not surprising pick, given its political content. But other choices surprised me, including one of Agatha Christie's best-known and controversial mystery novels, "The Death of Roger Ackroyd." Published in 1926, it is reportedly one of her best (apparently, with a significant twist in the plot near the end) and I recently bought a copy to take on my trip to Italy next month (I like to travel with paperbacks, so I can leave them behind for other readers as I go.)
Martel's recommendations for Canada's very conservative prime minister also include Jane Austen's "The Watsons;" "Meditations," by Marcus Aurelius, Rome's emperor a century after Christ; Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis;" and more contemporary works including Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," and Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird."
I especially like Martel's letter accompanying Emperor Aurelius's short work: " Dear Mr. Harper, Like you, Marcus Aurelius was a head of government. In AD 161, he became Roman Emperor, the last of the “five good emperors”—Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius—who ruled over an eighty-four-year period of peace and prosperity that lasted from AD 96 to 180, the Roman Empire’s golden apogee.
"The case of Rome is worth studying. How a small town on a river became the center of one of the mightiest empires the world has known, eventually dominating thousands of other small towns on rivers, is a source of many lessons. That Rome was mighty is not to be doubted. The sheer size the empire achieved is breathtaking: from the Firth of Forth to the Euphrates, from the Tagus to the Rhine, spilling over into Northern Africa, for a time the Romans ruled over most of the world known to them. What they didn’t rule over wasn’t worth having, they felt: they left what was beyond their frontiers to “barbarians”.
"Another measure of their greatness can be found in the Roman influences that continue to be felt to this day...Despite their power and might, another lesson about the Roman Empire forces itself upon us: how it’s all gone."
As yet, the PM hasn't responded to any of Martel's explanatory letters, which would be excellent background for any bookclub. The PMO did acknowledge receipt of the first novel sent.
BTW, Martel's site: http://www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca/ is available in both English and French, and my tutor tells me that Martel's writing in French is very good, with an extremely rich vocabulary. Despite many weeks of extensive tutoring, I'm still not a good judge of this, but I trust my tutor's judgement.
In any event, I thought Martel's Life of Pi was a wonderful novel, richly symbolic. I wonder what Richard Parker, one of the key characters in the novel, would make of Prime Minister Harper???