What Is Stephen Harper Reading?


Bruce Meyer has a review of Yann Martel’s What Is Stephen Harper Reading? Frye not surprisingly is included in Martel’s list of recommended works:

The works that Martel has chosen to send to the Prime Minister are wide-ranging in their content and their reader impact. Some have a Canadian angle, from Milton Acorn’s collection of poems The Island Means Minago, or Tomson Highway’s hilarious The Rez Sisters to Voltaire’s Candide, in which it is said that the “French and English are fighting over a few acres of snow.” Others are rather deep but essential reading for any individual who seeks to lead, such as The Meditations by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

If heavy-duty fare is not to Harper’s taste, there is, buried within the selection, a curriculum of books that would do a high-school student a world of good: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination (do you think a busy prime minister would take books with him to a desert island?), William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, George Orwell’s Animal Farm (though the temptations of barnyard politics should have been foreseen by Martel), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (just in case funding cutbacks lead to unforeseen menu changes).

Harper has both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in economics from the University of Calgary, so it’s hard to imagine that he’s read many of Martel’s recommended works beyond what might have found its way onto his high school reading list more than thirty years ago.  And as he “governs” without Parliament whenever it’s politically expedient for him to do so — witness two dubious prorogations of Parliament in one year — it’s a stretch at this point to think of him reading much beyond tracking polls and various public relations scenarios intended to convince skeptical Canadians that he really is just a cuddly moderate.  Thanks to Harper, we only occasionally have full parliamentary representation in this country.  But in its place we do have tightly-scripted government funded feel-good ad campaigns!  It’s difficult to conceive of Harper as being anything other than a narrow special interest politician with big oil behind him.  But please note that Canada is a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol and has legal obligations to meet its targets.  And yet, Canadian greenhouse emissions currently exceed by 35% our commitment to reduce them. That is, we are 35% above our Kyoto targets to reduce below 1990 emissions levels. Under Harper, we are not reducing our emissions.  We are increasing them.  The Alberta tar sands produce some of the most environmentally degrading oil it is currently possible to produce.  With just .5% of the world’s population, we account for 2.5% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, with a rise that has topped out at 20% during the Harper years.  Per capita, we are among the very worst carbon polluters in the world.  It’s therefore not hard to see who Stephen Harper is and what he really represents.  Whatever he’s reading, it’s clearly not what he needs to be.

Is this also a good time to point out that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is likely to have read most of if not all of the books that Martel recommends?  Ignatieff, in contrast to Harper, is the recipient of 11 honorary degrees thanks to his extensive scholarly output over the years, including teaching posts at Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics, and Harvard.  Ignatieff has written a number of books, which include scholarly works, popular works of social concern, three novels and even a couple of screenplays.  You can see Ignatieff’s bibliography here.  There is no bibliography of books written by Stephen Harper.

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10 thoughts on “What Is Stephen Harper Reading?

  1. Alan

    What a sad departure from what seemed to me a vaguely interesting blog about a side topic. This pointless exercise in political partisanship means I remove this blog from my readership.

    1. Michael Happy Post author

      Well, we try to be specifically interesting rather than just “vaguely” so. Is it “partisan” to criticize a politician where criticism is warranted? (Are my facts and figures regarding carbon emissions, Kyoto, and the tar sands incorrect, for example?) It does seem, however, to be partisan to remove a blog from a readership because of one post — and not for its vagueness either, but for its specificity.

  2. Alan

    It’s not really just one post. I originally thought this was a Frye blog. Seems not – seems it is pet political enthusiasms. Fine, but nobody needs follow that – a Frye blog would have been interesting.

  3. Alan

    Actually Michael let me suggest something. When you want to rant on politics, do it on some blog of your own that has nothing to do with Northrop Frye. That would allow this blog some continuing credibility and would give you complete freedom to diss the PM.

  4. Martin


    I think the idea is that this blog should be irrelevant to real life since it is about a literary scholar. Why I find refreshing is how widely Frye intended his ideas (perhaps anyone’s ideas about literature) to be understood. We lose a good reader in Al (he has read a lot and quite broadly) but the cost of having him read the blog (you mustnt ever offend him) may be too high.

  5. Michael Happy Post author

    Literature and literary criticism are relevant to everyday life — every day and in every way. Sheesh, guys.

    Frye, by the way, was way to the left of me. I only claim to be “progressive”, albeit an aggressive progressive. But Frye was a member of the CCF and then the NDP.

  6. Clayton Chrusch

    Michael, I think you are doing an excellent job of making this an interesting and welcoming place for people who like Frye to visit. Thank you for all the time and effort and talent you’ve put into the blog.

    Alan, I hope you keep on reading and contributing.

  7. Jonathan Allan

    Somethings strikes me as odd here…the idea that somehow Frye and politics cannot mix. Why is this so? It seems that Frye’s work is often very political though not partisan? But, as Michael points out, Frye was to the left; whenever he is referred to as a “Minister” as though this is a rhetorical negative, we are often quickly reminded that he was a minister in the most liberal church in Canada. The difference perhaps is that Frye did not seem — at least from my readings — to advocate a specific political agenda (party allegiance) in his writings; but was there ever any doubt where Frye stood politically (as in, who Frye would have voted for in an election)? The partisan issues that do appear on this blog, in some ways, I think, reveal much about Frye as well.

  8. Trevor Losh-Johnson

    While Michael has grievously offended me many times with his choice of music videos (Mike Score’s waterfall haircut arching over all of this), I invariably end up pleased with the opportunity to stretch myself beyond my zones of comfort. The more I learn about Frye, the more I appreciate how applicable he is to all modes of social life. How can the political be excised from that? As an American, I have appreciated that the Canadian bloggers here often post from their national perspective. It has been a lovely opportunity to learn about my neighbors to the North, even if that has involved slight humiliation on the hockey end of things.

    I have assumed that conflicting viewpoints on this blog can be debated and resolved, or amicably let stand. But censorship, of the self or of others, would be most incongruous to the project of discussing Frye’s legacy. If Alan believes that Michael’s post is itself contrary to the study of Frye, perhaps he would be so kind as to post his own viewpoint.

  9. Ed Lemond

    I had the privilege of offering Yann Martel 3 books from my bookstore when he was in Moncton a couple years ago for a Community Reads event sponsored by the Frye Festival. They had to be short paperbacks, easily shippable to Stephen Harper. I chose Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Animal Farm, and one other I forget. My paperback copy of Educated Imagination was at home, so I couldn’t offer it. He had dropped in unexpectedly. But he let it be known that he’d like Frye’s book, so I brought it later that night, at party. What he says on his website is interesting and worth looking at.



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