Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Stephen Harper and the Guinness Book

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I followed Yann Martel's project of sending Stephen Harper books with mild, occasional interest. I'm not sure what I thought of it. Or, more, I had conflicted thoughts about it. As a reading list, at least, it's pretty good.

Famously (maybe apocryphally?), Stephen Harper once told a reporter that his favourite book is The Guinness Book of World Records. This caused a lot of hand-wringing among Canadians of various intellectual stripes -- Martel presumably among them.

But I wonder if there's some glimmer of hope in that. As a kid, when my imagination was arguably at its most active and exciting, I was addicted to those record books. Every Christmas from 1985 to 1990 I got one in my stocking/pillowcase, devoured it instantly, and returned to it again and again until a new edition arrived the following year.

Weirdly, almost all fellow Guinness enthusiasts my age remember "the guy with the nails" above every other record-holder:

Part of my fascination with the books -- and this abundantly taloned Indian -- was that, past the initial spectacle of the photographs, I was forced to consider these freaks as humans, with lives of their own that had to transcend whatever abnormality made them famous. I think a lot of people's brains went right to the intensely private w/r/t the fingernail champ: How does he wipe his bum/make love to his wife/sleep at night, in every sense?

This, to me, requires more imagination, activity and empathy from the reader than a lot of fiction. The photograph becomes a point of entry into the life of some freakish "other;" we're forced to humanize them by looking past what sets them apart.

So why bemoan Stephen Harper's enthusiasm for this book? Let's give the guy a little credit; I'm far more encouraged that he likes the Guinness Book than were he to have cited Mein Kampf or anything by Bill O'Reilly. Isn't this potential exercise in empathy one of the reasons we read -- particularly why we read fiction? Maybe Stephen Harper sits up at night staring into the eyes (and nails) of Shridhar Chillal and wonders: "How is he like me?" And then, maybe: "I should really read Life of Pi..."

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Pasha Malla

Pasha Malla’s first collection of short stories, The Withdrawal Method, a Globe and Mail and National Post book of the year, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the Trillum Book Award and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize and longlisted for the Giller Prize. His latest book, People Park, is forthcoming from Anansi in July 2012.

Go to Pasha Malla’s Author Page