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Letters to a Prime Minister

Every two weeks, from 2007 to 2011, Yann Martel sent a book to then Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. Each book was accompanied by a letter telling the PM why he might enjoy that particular selection. Martel, author of Life of Pi and the recently released The High Mountains of Portugal, strongly believes that “if you want to lead effectively, you must read widely”, and by widely, he means you must read literature.

My argument is that literature – as opposed to factual non-fiction – is an essential element to a deeply thinking, fully feeling mind in our complex twenty-first century world. A mind not informed by the thoughtful product that is the novel, the play, the poem, will be capable perhaps of administering the affairs of a people, maintaining the status quo, but not of truly leading that people. To lead effectively requires the capacity both to understand how things are and to dream how things might be, and nothing so displays that kind of understanding and dreaming as literature does.

Martel says that fiction has a more ‘universal resonance’ than non-fiction. Non-fiction has the advantage of being able to cover a specific topic in depth, but does not have the same broad appeal that fiction does.

A novel is about Life itself, whereas a history remains about a specific instance of Life. A great Russian novel…will always have a more universal resonance than a great history of Russia; you will think of the first as being about you on some level, whereas the second is about someone else.

Given the slightly disingenuous tone of Martel’s letters, it seems unlikely that he expected Harper – who never responded personally – to enter into a literary discourse with him. In his own words, Martel was using books as “political bullets and grenades”. He wanted to convey to the Prime Minister that the Arts are more than just entertainment; they are the core elements of civilization.

The value of 101 Letters to a Prime Minister lies in Martel’s insightful commentary on the books and their authors. Two things I am confident in saying: this compendium includes books you will not have heard of, and, your ‘to read’ list will grow after reading it.

Most of the works selected are under 200 pages – leaders are busy people – and it’s hard to imagine a more diverse selection of books. Along with the authors you’d expect to see – Shakespeare, Hemingway, Camus, Voltaire – are quite a few surprises. And not all of them are books Martel liked. He read Fictions by Borges twice and didn’t like it either time, but he encourages others to do the same.

By so doing one avoids the possible pitfall of autodidacts, who risk shaping their reading to suit their limitations, thereby increasing those limitations. The advantage of structured learning, at the various schools available at all ages of one’s life, is that one must measure one’s intellect against systems of ideas that have been developed over centuries. One’s mind is thus confronted with unsuspected new ideas.

Which is to say that one learns, one is shaped, as much by the books that one has liked as by those that one has disliked.

The books chosen by Martel include novels, plays, poetry, and philosophical works, but it’s not only classic literature. Ever heard of The Virgin Secretary’s Impossible Boss? Probably not. But you’ve likely heard of the brand. Over 6 billion Harlequin romance novels have been sold. Martel acknowledges that they’re poorly-written, silly, unrealistic and escapist, but says they provide readers with emotional satisfaction, “an escape from the harsh realities of life into a glamorous world populated by rich, beautiful people where a happy ending is guaranteed”.

Any book – trash to classic – makes us live the life of another person, injects us with the wisdom and folly of their years. When we’ve read the last page of a book, we know more, either in the form of raw knowledge – the name of a gun, perhaps – or in the form of greater understanding. The worth of these vicarious lives is not to be underestimated. There’s nothing sadder – or sometimes more dangerous – than the person who has lived only his or her single, narrow life, unenlightened by the experience, real or invented, of others.

It is this ability of Martel’s to see, and convey to the reader, the value of a very eclectic collection of reading material that makes his book such a pleasure to read.

On Children’s Literature

Martel sends Harper several picture books – The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, Imagine a Day, Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen – as well as some books for older children – The Brothers Lionheart, Read All About It! and Charlotte’s Web.

The fundamental role of children’s literature is to encourage children to use their imagination…If the expandable imagination of a child’s mind is not expanded, then it will shrink all the more, harden all the more, when that child grows up. The consequence is more dire than simply an adult with a dull, narrow mind. Such an adult is also less useful to society because he or she will be incapable of coming up with the new ideas and new solutions that society needs. A skill is a narrow focus of knowledge, a single card in a deck. Creativity is the hand that plays the cards.

Even with a seemingly straightforward picture book, there can be more than meets the eye.

Look at the illustrations of In the Night Kitchen. Who do the cooks with their narrow moustaches remind you of? What then might it mean when Mickey escapes the batter and floats away from the oven? In other words, I would suggest that you not just read these books (and aloud, even better), but imagine them.

On Graphic Novels

Two graphic novels, Maus and Persepolis, are among the books chosen. Of the Pulitzer-prize winning Maus, Martel says:

Maus is a masterpiece. Spiegelman tells his story, or, more accurately, the story of his mother and father, in a bold and radical way. It’s not just that he takes the graphic form, thought perhaps by some to be a medium only for children, to new artistic heights by taking on such a momentous topic as exterminationist genocide. It’s more than that. It’s how he tells the story. You will see. The narrative agility and ease of it. And how the frames speak large. Some, small though they are, and in black and white, have an impact that one would think possible only with large paintings or shots from a movie.

It’s brilliant. It so takes you in, it so rips you apart. From there you must make your own tricky way back again to what it means to be human.

On Erotica

Not something you might expect a Man Booker prize-winning author to send to a Prime Minister, but Martel gets to the heart of what erotica offers in describing Anaïs Nin’s Artists and Models:

Clothes are the commonest trappings of vanity. When we are naked, we are honest. That is the essential quality of these lustful stories of Nin, embellished or wholly invented though they may be: their honesty. They say: this is part of who we are – deny it, and you are denying yourself.

On Hindu Scripture

Read the Bhagavad Gita in a moment of stillness and with an open heart, and it will change you. It is a majestic text, elevated and elevating. Like Arjuna, you will emerge from this dialogue with Krishna wiser and more serene, ready for action but filled with inner peace and loving-kindness.

Om shanti (peace be with you), as they say in India.

On Kafka (Metamorphosis)

Kafka introduced to our age a feeling that hasn’t left us yet: angst. …. The dysfunctional side of the twentieth century, the dread that comes from mindless work, from constant, grinding, petty regulation, the dread that comes from the greyness of urban, capitalist existence, where each one of us is no more than a lonely cog in a machine, this was what Kafka revealed. Are we done with these concerns? Have we worked our way out of anxiety, isolation and alienation? Alas, I think not. Kafka still speaks to us.

On Tolstoy (The Death of Ivan Ilyich; The Kreutzer Sonata)

Tolstoy was unregulated. He lived in a manner unbridled and unblinkered. He took it all in. He was supremely complex. And so there was much of life in his long life, life good and bad, wise and unwise, happy and unhappy. Thus the interest of his writings, because of their extraordinary existential breadth. If the earth could gather itself up, could bring together everything upon it, all men, women and children, every plant and animal, every mountain and valley, every plain and ocean, and twist itself into a fine point, and at that fine point grasp a pen, and with that pen begin to write, it would write like Tolstoy.

On Austen (The Watsons; Jane Austen: A Life)

So though limited by class and by sex, Jane Austen was able to transcend these limitations. Her novels are marvels of wit and perspicacity, and in them she examined her society with such fresh and engaging realism that the English novel was durably changed.

On Reading the Hard Stuff

The final work Martel sends to Harper is In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. At 4,347 pages, it breaks the ‘under 200 pages’ rule by quite a wide margin, and is also the only book Martel hadn’t read before sending. He sends it as a commitment to read it himself one day.

So why did I never take on Proust’s masterpiece? I suppose for the same reason that many books are left unread, a mixture of fear and slothfulness, fear that I wouldn’t understand the work and unwillingness to spend so much intellectual energy reading all those pages. But as you and I both know, fear and slothfulness lead nowhere. Great achievements only come through courage and hard work.

101 Letters to a Prime Minister is a worthwhile addition to the bibliophile’s bookshelf.