I am embarrassed by the date on my last post – has it really been nearly a month since I’ve written? My excuses? Plentiful. In alphabetical order they are: coffee, friends, Gilmore Girls, last snowboard session of the year, laziness, the Oscars, puppies, reading, reading non-fun material, sunny weather, watching all Oscar-nominated movies, work and… well that’s it really isn’t it?
A number of reads on the radar this week: Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner (translated by Lazer Lederhendler) which was just selected as the 2010 CBC Canada Reads winner (though judging by the other selections as well as the panelists I would take this with a grain of salt), Fooled by Randomness by Nassem Nicholas Taber can never be read enough and Neromancer by William Gibson for a look at the novel that started the world of the Matrix.
And while I’m on the topic of reading lists let me discuss my most recent read: What is Stephen Harper Reading? by Yann Martel. I cannot sing enough praise for this book. It is hard to pinpoint what, exactly, I enjoyed so much about this reading list-cum-literally outlook on Canada and more poignantly our current leader. I do think, however, an attempt to identify these items will illuminate the core items that, in my tiny opinion, make for a great read.
Despite the myriad of choices (yes, Animal Farm and Candide are among the selections but so are less obvious reads such as Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke), Yann is consistent in his purpose: with every selection he pleads with Stephen Harper to open his eyes to the bigger (and often better) world that is held within books. He asks him to look beyond the tactical use of prorogation and remember there are important things like the arts (albeit in his own self-interest) that should not be forgotten. If only Stephen would actually crack open one of the books carefully chosen by Mr. Martel, perhaps he could tell the world that he has a new favorite book, one that easily replaced his old standby the Guinness Book of World Records (this is not a joke).
In all of his admonitions, Yann is ever so eloquent. The use of literary tools comes so easily to Martel they seem innate. Instead of creating a whirling mass of images the reader must wade through to dig out the intended meaning, Yann’s analogies skip over the tongue without notice. As such, there is no break in his ever important cadence and the reader is fooled into thinking the conjured image was laid out before them from A-Z: “if [Shakespeare] was a spring, we now all live in his delta.” Yann continually impresses on the importance of cadence in writing – the need for flow and rhythm in the written word – for “the origin of language is oral, not written” and is successful in achieving a natural flow in his own right.
There was one point in Yann’s writings that I initially objected to: the sheer emphasis he put on the role books (should) play in one’s life. Obviously, I am a proponent of the written word: I enjoy losing myself in books, I enjoy learning from books and I enjoy when a books forces me to rethink what I always thought to be true. However, when Yann taunts Mr. Harper by suggesting that there should be a required reading list for prime ministers, I felt he had taken the idea beyond the hyperbole. He goes on to posit that since we expect a certain level of knowledge with respect to the history of Canada, for example, or current affairs and economic policies, that we should also hold the prime minister’s “imaginative assets […] accountable.” When Martel rhetorically asks the honorable Mr. Harper “… if you haven’t read Under Milk Wood or any other poetic prose, if you haven’t read Their Eyes Were Watching God or Drown or any other American Novel, if you haven’t read the Cellist of Sarajevo or the Island Means Minago or the Dragonfly of Chicoutimi or any other Canadian novel, poem or play, then what is your mind made of? What materials went into the building of the dreams you have for our country?” my gut reaction was to cry out: but what of life experiences? What of the hardships we overcome in the here and now that make us who we are? The successes? The triumphs? The failures? Though his questioning may have been spotted with sarcasm, this is a pervasive theme in Yann’s quest to illuminate Harpers failure as a (among other things) literary man. It wasn’t until Yann sent Mr Harper a book which Yann himself does not agree with that I came to understand just how important this past time of reading is, especially when pertaining to the head of our home and native land: “one must measure one’s intellect against systems of ideas that have been developed over centuries.” What a wonderful barometer this would be.
As Mr. Martel describes his reasons for selecting each and every piece of literature and often the personal circumstances that lead to such a choice, a sense of intimacy is created between reader and author (to the point that I felt I could become Yann’s pen-pal if I desired) because, as Yann himself explains, “to like the same book implies a similar emotional response to it, a shared recognition of the world reflected in it.” And isn’t this what everyone is looking for anyway – someone to share life with?
This is a book I will likely pick up many times in the future, if only to re-read a brief section or to aid me in my search for a new book. It is a book that provides food for thought, a book that forces one to think more dynamically about the stories we read every day and it’s writing allows the reader to take each journey uninterrupted. There are many gratifying passages from this book, but I will leave you with one of my favorites:
The space next to where I sleep
“… 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. “
Bless you Mr. Martel.