Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Is Steven Harper reading The Gift?

A story on Quill and Quire reminded me of something I've known for a while. Yann Martel, the author of Life of Pi has been sending books to the Prime Minister of Canada for the last two years. He has chronicled his gifts (and the lack of response from the Prime Minister) on What is Steven Harper Reading? I came across the website last year and thought the whole idea was interesting, but then I forgot about it.

The Quill and Quire story was about the fact that after almost two years of silence Martel started, in April, receiving acknowledgement letters from one of the Harper's staff members. He doesn't know why and the letters don't indicate that Harper has actually read the books.

What caught my eye was that one of the most recent books that Martel sent to Harper was Lewis Hyde's The Gift which I blogged about extensively last fall. Martel writes a cover letter with each book explaining why he chose it. He also inscribes the book. He then publishes the inscription and letter on the website. I was interested in what he wrote to Harper about The Gift so I went and looked.

He wrote (among other things):

Art is at the heart of The Gift. Hyde sees every aspect of art as a gift: creativity is received as a gift by the artist, art is made as a gift and then, rather awkwardly in our current economic system, art is traded as a gift. That certainly rings true with me. I have never thought of my creativity in monetary terms. I write now as I did when I started, for nothing. And yet the artist must live. How then to quantify the value of one’s art? How do we correlate a poem’s worth with a monetary value? I use the word again: it’s awkward. If Hyde favours the spirit of gift-giving over that of commercial exchange, it’s not because he’s a doctrinaire idealist. He’s not. But it’s clear what he thinks: we’ve forgotten the spirit of the gift in our commodity-driven society and the cost of that has been the parching of our souls.

He ends his letter with the most appropriate sentiment:

One last point, made in the spirit of Hyde’s book. I have now sent you fifty-five books of all types, and there will be more to come, as long as you are Prime Minister. I imagine these books are lying on a shelf somewhere in your offices. But they won’t be there forever. One day you will leave office and you’ll take with you the extensive paper trail that a prime minister creates. That trail will be placed in hundreds of cardboard boxes that will end up at the National Archives of Canada, where in time they will be opened and the contents parsed by scholars. I would feel sad if that were the fate of the books I have given you. Novels and poems and plays are not meant to live in cardboard boxes. Like all gifts, they should be shared. So may I suggest that you share what I have shared with you. One by one, or all together, as you wish, give the books away, with only two conditions: first, that they not be kept permanently by each recipient but rather passed on in a timely fashion, after they’ve been read, and, second, that they never be sold. That would keep the gift-giving spirit of our book club alive.

I wonder if Harper has read any of the books Martel has sent him. What a joy it would be for some of us to receive books chosen by a novelist by Martel. And yet through most of this period Harper has not even had a staff member acknowledge the gifts. This one was acknowledged:

May 22nd, 2009

Dear Mr. Martel,

On behalf of the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, I would like to acknowledge receipt of your recent correspondence.

Thank you for writing to share your views with the Prime Minister. You may be assured that your comments have been carefully noted. For more information on the Government’s initiatives, you may wish to visit the Prime Minister’s Web site, at

Your sincerely,

L.A. Lavell

Executive Correspondence Office

How sad.