A couple of years ago, urged by a friend, I read Life of Pi, by Yann Martel.It left me fascinated, and a little confused. I guess I’m not so good with obscure stuff. So I was quite interested that the Festival of Faith & Writing brought him to speak. Would he explain the book for the slow-of-brain?The evening began with an amusing glitch. Martel was introduced by a woman who spoke slow…..ly………and………distinct……..ly.With lots………of paus…….es.I thought, “Whoa, this is going to be the longest introduction ever.”She began:”You may know…….Yann…..Martel…….from his second book…….The Life……of Pi. In 2003……..The Life….of Pi….won the Man Booker….prize…..”At this point, a fidgety Martel popped up from his chair and whispered in her ear. She turned toward him, but the mic picked up her voice whispering, “There’s no ‘the’?!”He shook his head ‘No’ and sat back down.She began again, “You may know….Yann…..Martel….”He popped up and whispered again. She shook her head, as a huge, embarrassed smile spread across her face. She was, after all, a member of the Calvin College English Department. She would understand the importance of misplaced article adjectives and book titles.She took a deep breath and began a third time. “You may know…..Yann….Martel…..from his third….book………..LIFE……of Pi. In 2003…LIFE of Pi….”And so it went….just as slow and distinctly, but with a little humble humor thrown in to help us make it through. Yann Martel told a little about his childhood in Canada to help us understand where he’s from, and then hopped, skipped, and jumped up to the events preceding his decision to research and write Life of Pi.Here are the tidbits I scribbled out:”The creating of art is a lifelong endeavor, and I consider myself merely an apprentice.”This statement reassures me as I wake up feeling poor and needy and immature at the craft of writing. I feel ever so slightly more comfortable scratching away at words and phrases, knowing it’s a lifelong endeavor. I shall learn and grow–and hopefully improve–with each attempt.”Reading increases your experience of life–it give you more lives.”I love this. Reading carries me away from my suburban cul-de-sac, off to other lands, and into the minds and hearts of other people. I enter their struggle, their conflict, and develop greater insight into the human condition, and compassion for people in other places and situations–people who are making different choices than I and are dealing with the consequences of those decisions. In reading, as in life, I seek to understand why people are who they are and do what they do.He talked about his background as a Canadian growing up in an extremely secular culture, and how he shifted from being an atheist to being more open to the idea of faith in general. He said he started thinking about faith: What is it? How do we experience it? What does it mean?He said that when he was in India, he started thinking of the idea that would become Life of Pi. To research it, he chose to explore three major religions.And then, he proceeded to share his take on Life of Pi. “This is just one person’s reading of the book,” he said. “You may have a different understanding and conclusion. So. Here’s one person’s interpretation.”It will take too long to type out and would ruin the story for you if you haven’t read it. So I’ll leave you hanging. But I feel satisfied to know at least one way of understanding Life of Pi. Whew!I will, however, share another snippet–something to ponder and decide if you want to agree or argue his point. After he walked us through the storyline and his explanation, he said, “Life is an interpretation…you don’t have a choice of what will happen to you, but you do have freedom of interpreting it. And it makes all the difference in the world.”During the Q&A time, someone asked about his blog, and he told about “What Is Stephen Harper Reading?” Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada.In 2007 Martel joined a group of artists who testified before Canada’s Parliament to try to increase funding for the arts (He explains it in detail here). As he was waiting to go in, he said he was thinking about stillness:
I was sitting in the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons, I and forty-nine other artists from across Canada, fifty in all, and I got to thinking about stillness. 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.
Keep those thoughts of his in mind.The fifty artists went in and presented the reasons that funding for the arts is essential for Canada as a country, but the leaders seemed disinterested. He said that Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister, tends to run Canada more like a business than a country, and sat unmoved throughout the short plea for support of the arts.Martel could have responded in a lot of ways to the apparent disinterest. He decided to be positive, proactive, and clever. I pulled from the site the following explanation:
The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute, certainly not. I don’t think he even looked up. The snarling business of Question Period having just ended, he was shuffling papers. I tried to bring him close to me with my eyes.Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts.But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness.For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might get from the Prime Minister, on this website
I just love that. I love the care with which he is selecting great literature and writing a brief explanation of how it might enrich the Prime Minister’s life.Martel said he has a few self-imposed rules for the book selection process. He chooses relatively short books, trying to respect the PM’s time (and, perhaps, his attention span). And I think with the exception of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), the books are all in English. I can’t remember why, because I think the PM is fluent in French.Here is an excerpt from the first letter Martel sent accompanying the first book, which was Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych.
I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We’re all busy. Meditating monks in their cells are busy. That’s adult life, filled to the ceiling with things that need doing. (It seems only children and the elderly aren’t plagued by lack of time—and notice how they enjoy their books, how their lives fill their eyes.) But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table. In that space, at night, a book can glow. And in those moments of docile wakefulness, when we begin to let go of the day, then is the perfect time to pick up a book and be someone else, somewhere else, for a few minutes, a few pages, before we fall asleep. And there are other possibilities, too. Sherwood Anderson, the American writer best known for his collection of stories Winesburg, Ohio, wrote his first stories while commuting by train to work. Stephen King apparently never goes to his beloved baseball games without a book that he reads during breaks. So it’s a question of choice.And I suggest you choose, just for a few minutes every day, to read The Death of Ivan Ilych.
I liked that Martel reminded the PM, as well as his Festival audience on that night he spoke, that reading can be done in short segments of time. Most of us sleep next to a nightstand of some sort. We can leave a book there and “in that space, at night, a book can glow,” as we read from it for five minutes at the end of a day. Even busy people can manage to read. He was, of course, preaching to the choir that night at Calvin College; but to Stephen Harper, he was being understanding and practical.It’s also fun to scan the titles Martel has chosen along with a brief synopsis of each book. Martel includes his own personal opinion about why the book is great, and along the way, gently reminds the PM why literature matters–why art matters–and why stillness matters in the taking in of art.