our prime minister’s reading list

Posted by Daniela Elza on Sep 10 2008

Yann Martel, the author of a book I read recently: Life of Pi, has started a project. Last year at Congress 2007 in Saskatoon, he gave a breakfast lecture which revolved around his initiative to send our Prime Minister a book every two weeks for as long as he is in office. For the purpose he set up a website to track the books sent and the replies received. Here you can read the story behind the website.

Now that Stephen Harper has called for an election, before the time he promised an election will be called, what will become of Martel’s project?

I will not go into the problematics of a prime minister making rules that he ends up being the first one to break. I think this is becoming quite a trend. I remember Gordon Campbell making promises that were not kept. I have to attend to these kind of behaviours on the playground all the time. If we do not tolerate this among kids on the playground how can we tolerate this in the Prime Minister position? Simple questions, really.

Call me old fashioned, but I like my leaders to be visionaries. Is that a lot to ask?
What is a visionary? I would have a much better definition if I could see enough of them in power. Still, I will make my humble attempt here. A visionary for me is one who sees past the short term pressures, and petty day to day convolutions. Does not get involved in them. One who is not there to fight personal ego battles. One who exudes, or at least displays, a sense of wisdom. One who makes me hopeful about the world my kids will grow up into. One who holds and defends human values that rampant capitalism in the face of the corporate world has no time for. A visionary is not one who constantly tries to do damage control, or tries to cover up for previous bad decisions. A visionary is not one who turns on the filth and dirt machine to make themselves stand an inch higher. Or one who runs on platforms that boil down to: I will pay you to elect me. Can we aim any lower than that? Yet, that is what I have been seeing a lot of in the past decade. And it went too far south of the border.

Yesterday I was shaken into paying attention with the whole issue around excluding the green party from the public televised debates. So who is afraid of Elizabeth May?

I do not claim to know a lot about politics, and I feel I am the better for it. But then there is that moment where we stop paying attention and the next time we look up from our busy lives we might have our own home grown mini-Bush right here, while we are all busy watching Obama’s speeches and cheering him on.

How does one become a visionary?

What we do shapes us. We are shaped by what we watch, think, say, we are shaped by what others think of us. A teacher who regards a student as incapable, can easily make him so. So this job of thinking is a big responsibility. When the thinking you do explicitly affects a whole country or shall we say the world (these days), one has to really work on oneself and one’s thinking, on what they end up caring about. No easy task, I admit. Maybe the hardest thing we will ever have to do. Work on ourselves. So I want to know how Stephen Harper is working on himself. I do not want to pry. Just looking at the signs. Or any other of the leaders that have lined themselves up and are trying to earn or buy your vote.

Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac says: “Tell me of what plant-birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about his vocation, hobbies, his hay fever, and the general level of his ecological education.” Where we place our gaze, what we set our mind to not just tells about us, but also shapes us. Robert Leverant in his book Zen and the Art of Photography says: “A camera is only an intermediary between us and a new us.” Or let us take Gaston Bachelard’s thought that, “Poetry forms the dreamer and his world at the same time.” Throw in Paul Valery’s idea: “The poet’s poem interests me less than the subtleties and enlightenment he acquires by way of his work.” So weather we are writing, watching, reading, speaking, playing music, being with family, arranging, re-arranging our habitat, we are shaping ourselves and others. Just look around you for a moment and think how the room you are sitting in right now could be affecting and shaping you.

So back to Yann Martel’s project. What transpired at his lecture is that his carefully selected list is one that people, families and libraries are following. He did not have to ask them to. It is still to be confirmed if the man at the head of this country is actually reading them. There was a lame reply to the first book sent and … nothing since. Each book is accompanied by a letter which in itself is a fun read. There are 37 books so far (which means that this has been going on for almost a year and a half). The latest book is A Modest Porposal by Jonathan Swift.

I have been patiently waiting for Harper’s responses to come in, as I am sure, are a lot of people who are benefiting from Martel’s reading list. I am intrigued by such attempts at civic engagement. In this case Martel’s concern for the disregard of the arts. The cutting in funding. The current cuts amount to 45 million. Yet, on the radio yesterday on The Current they discussed there have been some 80 million spent to subsidize the auto industry. The man does not comes across as stingy with money. In fact it seems like he has spent so much we are in a deficit again. The question is where he spends them. Does that tell us what he cares about. I would think so. Actions speak louder than the words.

Bear with me. I trust this is all going to tie up somehow. Back to books. What is worrisome to me about the notion we harbour and reinforce with the way we do education is that once you are done with school you do not have to read another book. I am wondering if our prime minister could be under that impression as well. Ok, I know that is a big statement to make. Let’s say I am curious. I worry about the lack of response. Books are important, in so many ways. What does it say about the man who is not engaging with the invitation. After all if I had such a personal consultant and mentor, as Martel, making time, to select, and write to me I will be at least mildly interested, I will at least show somekind of participation. An opinion, to say the least. And he could not have said any less.

I would pay attention. I would wonder what he is trying to tell me. People do not dedicate time and resources if they did not care deeply.

So I thought the minimum I can do is to say thank you to Yann Martel on behalf of Harper: for speaking for books, for the arts, and for not being silenced into intimidation by being ignored by another man who is our equal but we have granted a certain Prime leadership position. One that can easily be taken away. Unlike the position of a visionary that is hard to take away. Since it is part of his being. Not a suit he wears and can easily switch for another one.

Thank you Yann Martel for your effort, for reminding our captain the excitement, the meditative opportunities, the thought, the possibilities for building and renewing self, that can be packed between two hard covers. I think it is important to engage the people who lead us in conversations like that.

And despite the fact that leading a country is a Big Job we also should be concerned as to where the country is lead to. Not to mention the part where we teach more with our actions, than our words. We grow up with beliefs and patterns that are hard to shake, or change. Many times they are the wrong patterns. So it takes internal work, on the part of a person to change those. It takes one to work at oneself. Everyone. For as long as we live.

So in the coming election I will be listening for the book platform the man is willing to stand on. I want to see the reading list he commits to, and I want him to keep his promise, whether he is Prime Minister or not. Maybe it is time he took a break to answer all those 37 unanswered letters in his mailbox. So I am waiting. . . and hoping he will not try our patience.

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