I got this book as a Christmas gift and only just finished it, reading a couple of the 101 letters every time I picked it up. Many Canadians will already be familiar, as I was, with Life of Pi author Yann Martel’s one-sided book club, in which he sent Prime Minister Stephen Harper a book every other week for about for years, each one accompanied by a letter discussing the enclosed book and why Martel thought the Prime Minister of Canada should read it. (This process was documented on Martel’s website and in an earlier book that covered the first 55 books in the series). Harper never sent Martel a single personal reply, although staff members did send a few carefully-worded form letters in response to some of the books.
There are two levels to 101 Letters: the political and the literary. Martel’s political agenda is not subtle: he is spurred to write by the Harper government’s apparent indifference to the arts and frequently refers in the letters to cuts to arts funding and other programs Martel sees as essential for a healthy society. His cynicism towards (verging on contempt) for Harper, his government, and his policies, frequently comes through in the letters: it’s clear that Yann Martel is suggesting reading as a program of self-improvement which he believes Stephen Harper desperately needs, but which he also thinks Harper is unlikely to avail of. By publishing the correspondence as it unfolded, Martel made it clear that the books and letters were always meant to be as much a commentary on and critique of Harper the politician, as a private message to Harper the man.
Personally, I’m no fan of Stephen Harper (to put it very very mildly) and my political views largely align with Martel’s, so I sympathize. But I also (oddly) found myself sympathizing with Harper (which I’ve certainly never done before). You can see why he wouldn’t want to reply to these letters, written in an apparently gentle tone that is almost always condescending and disapproving not very far beneath the surface. But one can hope that at least he read some of the books.
Which brings me to the second and more valuable purpose of this collection: the 101 wonderfully varied books (actually more, since Martel occasionally sent two or even three shorter books with a single letter) discussed in these pages contain several gems I wanted to add to my to-read list and some brilliant insights into books I’ve already read and loved. These aren’t necessarily Yann Martel’s favourite books: in fact, he includes some (such as an Ayn Rand novel) that he actively dislikes. It’s his discussion of why he’s chosen each book and why he thinks it would be a good addition to the library of a national leader. Regardless of your politics, any book-lover should enjoy this collection — though if you’re an ardent fan of Stephen Harper and his Conservative government, you will find Martel’s attitude in these pages hard to take at times.