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Yann Martel is seen here in Toronto Monday, April 5, 2010.

Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

Art is a gift, and Canadian novelist Yann Martel is an artist of high achievement, yet it does not follow that he knows how to give a gift. So the first book we would give to Mr. Martel, were we inclined to send him one every second Monday, as he has done for (or to) Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette & Modern Manners. ("Everyone deserves kindness and respect.")

There was something snarky and unkind, perhaps even verging on rudeness, in Mr. Martel's gift of 100 books, and in the accompanying letters, well-written and insightful but too often containing a chest-poke of condescension, or irony. And not only in proffering a book by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (". . . a mind that is tough, sharp and brave. I'm glad to say that Mr. Ignatieff has such a mind"). There was always the implicit notion that because Mr. Harper is a Conservative he is therefore a barbarian who does not read good books, that he thinks in corporate and political terms, not human ones. Good books create lasting effects, said Mr. Martel (a nice thought, but dubious), while large corporations wither away and leave little behind (another dubious notion, as the nation-building histories of the Canadian Pacific Railway and Hudson's Bay Company suggest). It is fine for a writer to give books to improve someone - a writer probably cannot help but give books in just such a way - but Mr. Martel made it a little too obvious that, in his view, Mr. Harper is desperately in need of intellectual and moral improvement. For instance, The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, tucked in at no. 55, is about art as a gift to the world. So we would give Mr. Martel The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce by Deirdre McCloskey , so he would know how it feels to be on the receiving end of didactic intent. We would also give him Books Do Furnish a Room, by Anthony Powell, because we like the title and because the hero is a hapless avant-garde writer who calls himself X. Trapnel, which is rather close to Y. Martel.

Having said all that, we would be remiss not to thank Mr. Martel, because the list (see http://www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca/) of 100 novels, novellas, poetry books, children's books and miscellanea, with accompanying letters, is a wonderful gift to all Canadians, from a writer who genuinely loves books. We will have our correspondence secretary send off a thank-you note on our behalf.

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