Neil Gaiman has long been on record as a fan of libraries, sometimes even calling himself a "feral child" raised by librarians among the stacks. So it should come as no surprise that the American Library Association chose Gaiman to be the Honorary Chair of this year's National Library Week. As both a librarian and a fan of Gaiman, I was thrilled to be able to interview him about National Library Week and what libraries have meant to him.
Neil Gaiman: I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be the person that I am, I’m very very certain that without libraries I wouldn’t have the career that I have. I had a fairly decent local library, I used to get my parents to drop me off there on the summer holidays on their way to work, and I would just read my way through the children’s library and as an adult I would read my way through the adult library. I was much more selective in the adult library; in the children’s library I would just read everything: you know, start with the A's. . . . They had a wonderful subject index, like an old card index, I would go to that and I’d look up robots, or ghosts, or something, and it would list all the books they had, all the fiction works they had with robots or ghosts or whatever, and I would go and read them.
The school that I went to in Sussex as a young man had obviously—you could sort of tell when they’d had money for books. They’d definitely had a big batch of money in sometime around 1920. Nice big bequest, because they had an incredibly solid collection of Edwardian, late-Edwardian literature, people like Edgar Wallace and so forth. And then they’d got another batch of money in in the fifties, so there was, you know, lots of nice old hardback novels and the works of people like Baroness Orczy and so forth. But what was fascinating about that is it wasn’t until I was in my twenties and talking to academics that I discovered that I accidentally had a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of Edwardian popular fiction. I didn’t set out to have that.
I loved libraries when I was starting out as a young writer. The most valuable thing to me, in some ways, both valuable in terms of what I was doing with it and also valuable as a morale thing, was my British library card. I had a card to the British Library, which at that time was in the Reading Room of the British Museum, and I would go, and I would research whatever it was that I was trying to write there. And just the knowledge that I was in a place that—Karl Marx was here! All these people, and you could list the people who wrote or researched in the British Museum Reading Room, and going, I’m part of them.
I remember the joy as a small child, I would have been about nine or ten years old, of the interlibrary loan. I’d wanted to read a W.S. Gilbert play, and they didn’t have the plays of W.S. Gilbert, and the librarian explained to me they could do an interlibrary loan, because there was a library in the system that had this book. And the amount of power was so exciting. And after that I started doing interlibrary loans all the time, because—it was like nothing could stop me. I’d go up to them and I’d say, you know, “Alfred Hitchcock, The Three Investigators. You only have one book in the series, but it says on the jacket there are 29 of them. How do we get the rest of them?” And they’d say, “Well, there’s a library in London that has them”—“Good!” It was great.
KP: Do you have a favorite library?
NG: My very favorite library of all is fictional, because it’s the one that I made up in The Sandman. That’s the library of all the books that people dreamed of writing but never wrote, all the sequels that never happened, all that kind of thing.
KP: Do you remember what the first book was that you checked out of the library?
NG: I remember the first book I ever took home from a school library. It was an Enid Blyton book. Enid Blyton was a very odd English writer. She never caught on in America. She has very very little in the way of redeeming literary value, it’s all about the story. And she’s somebody who is almost unreadable when you are past her target age, which I find fascinating. To the point where, by the time you’re seven, it’s hard to go back and reread the Enid Blyton books you liked when you were three or four. But it was an Enid Blyton book, I think it was called The Book of Wonder, and it was just a bunch of short stories about elves and fairies and little animals all having misunderstandings. Lots of little evil wizards casting spells that then rebound on them terribly. So that would have been the first book. I remember the pride of taking it home and the terror that something awful might happen to it.
I think the first book that I remember taking out from the library, my local library, was a book called The Winter of Enchantment, by Victoria Walker. I’m pretty sure. And it was the kind of book that I remember just reading and reading and reading and reading and taking back to the library and then checking out again and taking home again.
KP: I think a lot of readers and writers have had that experience with libraries, taking it back only to take it out again.
NG: One of the sweetest things that any librarian ever said to me was a librarian from the Appalachians, and she was talking about how the Sandman books, they got through a lot of them because they went out and they didn’t come back. And I said something apologetic, and she said, “No no, it’s okay, because sometimes a book finds its person.” And she said, “And then I guess we don’t want it back.” And I thought that was so sweet.
KP: There’s been a lot of talk in the library world about the future of libraries: Do they have a future? How can they stay relevant? What do you think the future holds for libraries?
NG: For most of the human race, pretty much all of the lifespan of the human race, information was currency. Information was like gold. It was rare, it was hard to find, it was expensive. You could get your information, but you had to know where to go, you had to know what you were looking at, you had to know how to find your information. It was hard. And librarians were the key players in the battle for information, because they could go and get and bring back this golden nugget for you, the thing that you needed.
Over the last decade, which is less than a blink of an eye in the history of the human race, it’s all changed. And we’ve gone from a world in which there is too little information, in which information is scarce, to a world in which there is too much information, and most of it is untrue or irrelevant. You know, the world of the Internet is the world of information that is not actually so. It’s a world of information that just isn’t actually true, or if it is true, it’s not what you needed, or it doesn’t actually apply like that, or whatever. And you suddenly move into a world in which librarians fulfill this completely different function.
We’ve gone from looking at a desert, in which a librarian had to walk into the desert for you and come back with a lump of gold, to a forest, to this huge jungle in which what you want is one apple. And at that point, the librarian can walk into the jungle and come back with the apple. So I think from that point of view, the time of librarians, and the time of libraries—they definitely haven’t gone anywhere.
In other ways, we’re in a time of economic difficulty. Libraries are the best place to go to start getting information. They’re the place where most Americans who do not have Internet access go to get Internet access. And we’re in a world now in which jobs are applied for online, jobs are advertised online. You need to be able to know which social services to connect to, you need to know how to retrain, you need information, and all of that information—the focal point for it is your library. So from my perspective, libraries are as important as they have ever been, and they may be more important than they have ever been.
KP: In American Gods you expanded on the idea that there are gods and spirits everywhere in our world, not just in temples but in places like roadside attractions, and so I wondered if you had any thoughts about what kind of gods or spirits might live in libraries.
NG: I have no idea, but I do know that I’d like them. There’s a wonderful kindred spiritry of the library, people who like being in libraries, people who are comforted by books, people who like being around the ideas of the departed. And I know that whatever gods or spirits are in libraries, they’re my kind of people.
A book deal posted yesterday in Publisher's Marketplace caught my eye—Farrar, Straus will publish the memoir of 73-year-old Kenyan conservationist Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who is known for raising and rehabilitating wild animals such as elephants and rhinos.
Titled An African Love Story, the story will focus on Sheldrick's relationship with her late husband David Sheldrick, also a wildlife campaigner who was the founding warden of Kenya's Tsavo National Park. (Daphne left her first husband to marry David, and this will be addressed in the memoir.) BBC has already produced a popular documentary about Daphne called "Elephant Diaries."
Film rights have been sold to Warner, and interestingly, Imax rights have also been sold. Filming will start this summer in Kenya.
By now you probably know that Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil was published yesterday. This is Martel’s first novel since Life of Pi, which won the Man Booker Prize and sold more than two million copies. (Click hear to read an interview with Martel about his new novel.)
If you’ve been following review outlets, you’ll also know that critics are divided over the novel. (I reviewed it for BookPage, and I liked it.) In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani uses adjectives like “misconceived,” “offensive” and “perverse” to describe the novel. In USA Today, Deirdre Donahue suggests that the book is “a masterpiece about the Holocaust.” In the blog world, Ti at Book Chatter calls Beatrice and Virgil “brilliant.” Rebecca at The Book Lady’s Blog says it’s “one of the most disappointing” books of the year.
My conclusion? Depending on taste, you'll either love this book or hate it, and you just need to read it to find out. It's a short read at only 200 pages, and I can guarantee one thing: Beatrice and Virgil will at least leave you thinking.
It is difficult to summarize the novel's plot in just a couple sentences, but basically the story follows Henry (whose life parallels Martel's), a novelist, who comes to have a weird friendship with a taxidermist who's writing a play. The play stars Beatrice and Virgil, a donkey and a howler monkey, and Henry comes to see their story as an allegory for the Holocaust.
The passage I've chosen to excerpt is from my favorite scene in the book, in which Virgil describes a pear to Beatrice, who has never eaten or seen one before.
By the way: What are you reading today?
Virgil: If you could magnify it a hundred times, do you know what it would sound like, the sound of fingertips running over the skin of a dry pear?
V: It would sound like the diamond of a record player entering a groove. That same dancing crackle, like the burning of the driest, lightest kindling.
B: A pear is surely the finest fruit in the world!
V: It is, it is! That’s the skin of a pear for you.
B: Can one eat it?
V: Of course. We’re not talking here of the waxy, thuggish skin of an orange. The skin of a pear is soft and yielding when ripe.
B: And what does a pear taste like?
V: Wait. You must smell it first. A ripe pear breathes a fragrance that is watery and subtle, its power lying in the lightness of its impression upon the olfactory sense. Can you imagine the smell of nutmeg or cinnamon?
B: I can.
V: The smell of a ripe pear has the same effect on the mind as these aromatic spices. The mind is arrested, spellbound, and a thousand and one memories and associations are thrown up as the mind burrows deep to understand the allure of this beguiling smell—which it never comes to understand, by the way.
B: But how does it taste? I can’t wait any longer.
V: A ripe pear overflows with sweet juiciness.
B: Oh, that sounds good.
V: Slice a pear and you will find that its flesh is incandescent white. It glows with inner light. Those who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the dark.
B: I must have one.
V: The texture of a pear, its consistency, is yet another difficult matter to put into words. Some pears are a little crunchy.
B: Like an apple?
V: No, not at all like an apple! An apple resists being eaten. An apple is not eaten, it is conquered. The crunchiness of a pear is far more appealing. It is giving and fragile. To eat a pear is akin to. . . kissing.
Dean King is known for his impeccably researched nonfiction books, such as 2004's Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival. His latest work, Unbound, tackles the "Long March," the Red Army's 4,000-mile walk in 1934. King focuses on the 30 women who took part in the journey, and for research, he traveled the length of the Long March himself and talked to survivors.
Have you seen any good book trailers today?
Ever wondered what best-selling authors like Amy Tan, Stephen King, Greg Iles and Mitch Albom do on their days off? We haven't. Because we know that they're rocking out with BookPage's own Author Enablers, setting readers' hearts afire with rousing performances of classics like "The Leader of the Pack" in a group called The Rock Bottom Remainders.
I had the good fortune of seeing the group at Webster Hall on their last tour—BEA, 2007—and it was a blast.
Now they've announced their WordStock tour, which will raise money for various charities, including relief efforts in Haiti. Does it include a city near you?
APRIL 20 — WASHINGTON, D.C.
Besides the Music: The Remainders in Conversation with Sam Donaldson at Harman Center for the Arts
APRIL 21 — WASHINGTON, D.C.
Concert at the 9:30 Club—with special guest Roger McGuinn
APRIL 22 — PHILADELPHIA
Concert at The Electric Factory
APRIL 23 — NEW YORK
Concert at the Nokia Theater in Times Square
APRIL 24 — BOSTON
Concert at The Royale
At the Guardian, they're running an interesting series of brief essays by writers about "the writers who inspired them." Though some of the writers veer off course to describe artists (Margaret Drabble, for example, chooses Van Gogh—and John Banville shares a story about his yellow Lab, Ben!), all are worth reading.
It got me thinking about who my literary hero would be. I'm not a writer myself (unless blogging counts!), but maybe in the "if I ever write a novel . . ." sense. Who is yours?
The 2010 Pulitzer Prizes were announced this afternoon in New York City, and many people (including your BookPage editors) were surprised by the results–specifically, the Fiction winner and finalists.
Paul Harding won for his debut novel Tinkers, which was published in January of 2009 by Bellevue Literary Press, a small, non-profit publisher that was founded in 2005. The Press is affiliated with New York University’s School of Medicine, and its mission is to "bring together medicine, science, and humanism through literature." Tinkers is about a man on his death bed who revisits his father, an "epileptic, itinerant peddler," through memory.
This news is huge because it's quite rare for a debut novelist to win the Pulitzer; the last time it happened was in 2000, when Jumpha Lahiri won for Interpreter of Maladies. One aspect of Harding's background is fairly typical; he attended the Iowa Writers Workshop. Before that, though, he was a drummer in a grunge/rock band called Cold Water Flat. Now, he teaches creative writing at Harvard's Extension School.
Harding has already already signed a contract to publish his next two books with Random House's The Dial Press. The next novel is called Enon and will be set in the same fictional town as Tinkers.
For more on this author, read an interview with Powell's Books, in which he talks about his inspiration for the novel. Also check out this interview with Bookslut for info on Harding's writing process and career as a musician.
Have any Book Case followers read Tinkers? What'd you think? I have just put in a request at the Nashville Public Library for their next available copy, so I'll report back as soon as I finish the book.
Fiction: Tinkers by Paul Harding (Bellevue Literary Press)
Finalists: Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet (Soft Skull Press) and In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (W.W. Norton & Company)
History: Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed (The Penguin Press)
Finalists: Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company) and Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 by Gordon S. Wood (Oxford University Press)
Biography: The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles (Alfred A. Knopf)
Finalists: Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey (Alfred A. Knopf) and Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by John Milton Cooper Jr. (Alfred A. Knopf)
Poetry: Versed by Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan University Press)
Finalists: Tryst by Angie Estes (Oberlin College Press) and Inseminating the Elephant by Lucia Perillo (Copper Canyon Press)
General Nonfiction: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman (Doubleday)
Finalists: How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities by John Cassidy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and The Evolution of God by Robert Wright (Little, Brown and Company)
A few months ago I blogged about the new film adaptation of Wuthering Heights, and now it seems that buzz surrounding Emily Brontë's classic has only grown.
In the fall, HarperCollins released a Twilight-themed version of the novel in Britain (because Wuthering Heights is Bella Swan's favorite book). Over the weekend, The Telegraph reported that sales of the re-branded book have quadrupled, from 8,551 to 34,023 a year in Britain.
If you're eager to read about Heathcliff and Cathy with a group—whether you've been inspired by Stephenie Meyer, you're revisiting the classic or it's always been on your TBR list—check out the Wuthering Heights Read-along on book blog Fizzy Thoughts.
I want to draw your attention to a note from The Pulitzer Prize website:
The 2010 Pulitzer Prizewinners and Nominated Finalists in all categories will be announced on April 12, 2010 at 3 p.m. Eastern daylight time. Finalists are not announced in advance. Winners' names, photos and bios will be posted on this Website at 3 p.m., along with all winning photographs and cartoons. Links to winning news stories will also be provided where available. The 2010 Prizes are awarded for work published, produced or premiered in 2009.
What book do you think should win the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction? Remember that it has to be a work of fiction published in 2009. According to the Pulitzer website, the prize will go to "distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life."
We all love libraries for different reasons—they give us complete access to thousands of books; a comfortable place to read and study; a place to gather with reading groups or friends. This week, we're celebrating all that is wonderful about libraries in National Library Week, which runs from April 11-17.
Besides winning the Orange Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award for her fiction, Ann Patchett has also been honored with the Nashville Public Library Literary Award. We thought she would be a perfect person to comment on the value of libraries in our communities. Read on for her thoughts on supporting the library, broadening its appeal and why libraries are still relevant in a technological age.
In an age of rapid technological change in books and publishing, why are libraries still vital to their communities?
Well, in part because there are so many rapid technological changes. I certainly don’t understand what’s going on half the time and the library is the first place I’d turn to help me figure out the new landscape. But libraries are so much more than that, they’re also learning centers for the community. That can mean children’s story hour or a seniors’ book club. Not all of our intellectual needs can be met sitting at home in front of a computer screen.
Do you have a favorite library? Do you have a fond memory of spending time there?
I have a deep connection to the extremely grand downtown branch of the Nashville public library. I have a lot of friends there and frankly the building itself feels like a friend. I love the murals in the downtown library in Los Angeles and the dioramas in the Widener library at Harvard. The architecture and the energy in the Seattle library and the Salt Lake City library is nothing short of thrilling to me.
Do you have any suggestions for how people can support their local libraries?
Call me crazy but money is never a bad place to start. If you have a child who is a voracious reader and you’re checking out ten books a week, stop and think every now and then how lucky you are to have access to those book for free and make a donation to cover some of the cost. Times are tight for libraries and they need our help and our involvement.
Is there anything you think libraries can do to broaden their appeal?
I think the recession has already done wonders to broaden the appeal of libraries. More and more people are using their local libraries to fill out applications on line, to check out CDs, DVDs, and, yes, books, as a means of free entertainment. There are smart people there to help us when we can’t figure out how to use the computers, there are programs to take part in when we feel like being with other people. Libraries are always there for us. All we have to do is walk through the door.
If you were trapped in a library overnight, how would you spend your time?
Libraries are famous for comfortable couches, good lighting, and loads of books. I might finally start Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, or I might go and take out the rare books that are locked away in glass cases or I might go and see if anyone had checked out any of my books lately. I’d never have the nerve to do that if someone else was around.
If you had to come up with three “buzz words” for the library, what would they be?
Books, books, books, but then I’m old fashioned. I never get over the joy of walking into a building stuffed full of books.