Each book in the very eclectic collection has come with a short essay explaining why Martel chose it. Sometimes—as with Jane Austen’s unfinished The Watsons—there’s an explicit political message. It was sent during a nationwide discussion about Canada’s continued involvement in Afghanistan, and Martel wrote pointedly that Austen let go of this book because of circumstances in her life. "In that, there is something instructive. There is so much we must leave unfinished. How hard it is to let go.” The message was lost on Harper: Canadian troops are still on the ground there.
At other times, the books were ones supposedly for children—most recently Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen—and poetry and plays also made the cut.
Like many others (although apparently not Harper who has never replied personally) I’ve read Martel's letters on his website with great pleasure, and often thought that the list of books would make a great plan for independent reading. Thousands of others have followed the evolving project on the web, but Martel says that he is glad the letters have been published in book form. The internet is ephemeral after all, but “books last.”
He closes this cover letter by mentioning Harper’s appearance a couple of weeks ago at a National Arts Centre benefit, where Harper played the piano and "sang poetry to the Canadian people. No one expected With a Little Help from My Friends from you. And look at the effect you had. People were amazed. You made the front page of newspaper after newspaper, and often with a big photo of you at the piano. It goes to show how art can amaze, connect and unify.”
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