A couple of weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of attending one of the KAMA Benefit Reading Series with our Amy, her elegant mother, Mary and delightful sister, Katie. The subject of the evening: What is Stephen Harper Reading? The speakers: Elizabeth May and Jann Martel.
“Don’t arrive hungry” said the invite from Amy. “Lovely event, but the food is not that great”. I heeded that advice and thought how lovely to have friends who are both sensible and cognisant of your hunger-triggered mood swings.
What is Stephen Harper Reading? I pondered the topic as I made my way downtown. I was vaguely aware that Jann Martel had been sending the PM books, but very vaguely. I don’t spend as much time thinking about Stephen Harper as I should. Aside from a healthy distrust for anyone formerly aligned with Stockwell Day, no regard for science, and strange eyes that remind me of a husky, I know relatively little.
The evening began with me negotiating around a group of Rubenesque belly dancers in the ladies room. ‘It’s going to look choreographed’, they assured me,’ but it’s not’. I later called b.s. on that one… those ladies had their moves down pat. Elizabeth May was great. But, Jann Martel’s discussion of how he came to sending Stephen Harper a book every two weeks with an accompanying letter delighted me.
He read us a few of them. All his letters are published in the book: 101 Letters to a Prime Minister, which I promptly went out and bought. Having developed a new literary crush, I was all-in for his curated reading list.
Some of the suggestions were classics: Le Petit Prince, Waiting for Godot, Animal Farm. Others were more obscure – ancient Greek poetry, graphic novels and religious material. There was a Harlequin for good measure, and a dose of Voltaire, maybe just to make it a little strenuous…
Jann was clear it wasn’t all elitist book-loving condescension. It was important because when someone has power over others, what they choose to read will be found in what they think and what they might do; “Once someone has power over me, as Stephen Harper does, it’s in my interest to know the nature and quality of his imagination, because his dreams may become my nightmares.”
Stephen Harper might say he’s too busy to read. I’ve heard this excuse from others. And so, I give them this passage from Jann’s website:
To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Just gazing upon a still lake, upon a quiet winter scene—doesn’t that lull us into contemplation? Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, yet we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important, and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by.
Jann pointed out that books uniquely teach us empathy as we temporarily live in the experience of others. I happen to love that. And as I tuck into Harlequin’s The Virgin Secretary’s Impossible Boss, I also love that I get to imagine that ship didn’t sail long ago.