Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Finding the Future by Examining the Past, at the NYPL

For the true book nerds out there, the 42nd street branch of the New York Public Library is one of the most special places in the entire city, let alone in the entire world. It's majestic, it's amazing, it's accessible and mysterious all at once. And in an unexpected turn of events, I got to stay there overnight. If you've ever read the book "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler," you'll know how magical this prospect must seem. Take 1 majestic building celebrating its centenary year, 500 literary nerds, and an all-night scavenger hunt...and then add the final prize: your work from that hunt, printed, sewn by hand into a bound volume, and kept in the library's permanent collection for as long as New York will be standing. I was sold.
It is customary to greet the lions at the NYPL when you first enter, whether they be made of stone (and ideal for writing your release form on), or of plush costume fur. We were told that the lions were named Patience and Fortitude--some say by Major Fiorello LaGuardia, to honor the two qualities that New Yorkers would most require during the years of the great depression. But others say that they are the pillars of intellectual endeavors...
And others say that they are made of Legos. At least this year.

As 500 people piled in to the library, we knew that we had to rise to the challenge, to earn the right to stay up all night in these hallowed halls. The quote above our entrance to the Rose Reading room, our home base from 8:00pm to 6:00am, was daunting: "A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life." John Milton was onto something.
We found our seats and were filled in on our challenge by Jane McGonigal, the game's creator. Over the course of the next 10 hours, we had a tremendous task ahead of us: to find 100 artifacts throughout the library, activate them by scanning QR codes on our smart phones, and unlocking writing challenges that would ask us to think about how each artifact contributed to the world we have inherited, and the world we hope to create. This could be anything from unlocking the Declaration of Independence (and writing your own declaration), to playing a game of charades, to writing a tall tale inspired by the story of George Washington and his cherry tree. Each moment from the past prompted an investigation (and proclamation) about the future.
And the artifacts could be anything...a South African Freedom Charter, just before apartheid fell...
E.E. Cummings' typewriter (note: it does indeed have capital letters on it)...
The engagement ring given to Harriet Westbrook by Percy Bysshe Shelley. It wouldn't be long before he would leave her for the pregnant Mary Wollstone Godwin, later his second wife and the author of "Frankenstein."
QR codes were placed on all kinds of items (even those to keep our hands clean), and the challenges they unlocked kept us busy.
But in the middle of all of this hunting and creating, we got another treat: we went down into the famed stacks beneath the circulation desk of the NYPL. 7 miles in all, it's a labyrinthian place. People rarely get to go see them, but we got full-on tours. And throughout the stacks were postcards, addressed to all of us, congratulating us on how we were finding ways to change the future. (To apply for the chance to attend, you had to complete this sentence: "In 2021 I will be the first person to...". And the future says that, indeed, you did accomplish it.) You were unlikely to draw the card that held your future, so it became your mission for the rest of the night to find the person whose future you had drawn.
Ashley found my future hidden in stacks relating to food and cooking--not surprising, given that I said I would be the first person to "destroy all restaurants by spreading the gospel of the home cook (and instituting Julia Child's cookbook as a religious text.)" A fellow food writer, she found me, and all around us people applauded. When one person helps another person find their future, it seems like it's fated, and a true cause for celebration.
But even in the midst of all this future-finding, there was still so much to look at from the past...the love letters from John Keats to Fanny Brawne (swoon)...
The journals of Malcolm X as he completed his 1964 hajj to Mecca...
Packets of seeds that were used to transport messages from the Resistance during the Third Reich...
And then the really geeky literary artifacts...Charlotte Bronte's writing desk...
Sketches from Maurice Sendak in the children's room sign-in book...
And Virginia Woolf's walking stick. It was found in the river, not far from her body after she weighed down her pockets and committed suicide by drowning. An eerie sight, especially when you catch it at 3:30am in a nearly silent library.
I spotted this guy in the Gottesman Exhibition Hall, where many of these artifacts are housed, quietly humming to himself and waving his hand over a document. I watched him for a while, then realized that he was conducting an imaginary orchestra as he looked over an original print of the score to the "Star-Spangled Banner." These artifacts resonated with everyone that saw them, and each person found an artifact that spoke to them, that moved them deeply. A large number of these very special artifacts are featured in the 42nd St. branch in the Gottesman hall through the end of this year--I cannot recommend this exhibit enough, so if you're in New York, make a special effort to come and see it for yourself.
Light was starting to come up through the windows of the Rose Reading Room, and the book was starting to come together at last.
It wasn't just any old all-nighter...we had produced a real tome. Even bleary-eyed and caffeine-deprived, it felt like a real accomplishment.
This suddenly felt quite epic...but there was one more thing we had to do before leaving the library. We had to sign it. All 500 of us. To prove we had been there, that we'd see these pieces of the past, that we'd made an effort to envision the future.

I signed my name, packed my bag, and slipped out into the early Midtown morning light. It's so rare for me to get to see the city still quiet, not yet moving, and I felt strangely powerful. All day long I hear people bemoaning the death of reading, of books, and yet I'd spent the night with 500 people totally committed to seeking out knowledge, to imagining worlds they hadn't yet seen. It was a totally invigorating experience, and it made even the most jaded recesses of my publishing brain perk up with excitement. Is this what it feels like to be a newly published writer? Or is it just the thrill of spending time in one of the most special places in the city, and heading out into the dawn with my "future" in my back pocket? Only time will tell...

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Last week I sent a book up to a relative, with a note attached saying, "Please, if you love this, tell a lot of people--this book really needs great word-of-mouth!" A few days later, she sent me an email, thanking me, but asking "Do you think this book won't do well?"

"No," I wrote back. "I think it will do well, but I think it will be hard to find the right audience. So we're counting on really passionate readers passing it to their friends."

"But if it's good," she replied, "Doesn't that mean it will find an audience without the readers doing the work?"

Well, technically, no...and this is one of the great conundrums I face every day as a reader. Do I tell you about the books I love that have already found an audience? Or do I make sure to sing the praises of the letter-known titles that need to find their way?

Working in the publishing industry, it's always a conflict of interest when you're asked to recommend books. I want the imprint I work for to do well, because that means greater success for the company, and greater rewards for me in the long run. But as a critics for TK and elsewhere, I spend my time assessing and reporting on books from other presses--and when I find something worth raving about, I wonder if all that raving I'm doing is going to come back and hurt my company.

And additionally, do the books that have already found an audience really need my praise? Over the last few weeks I've watched more and more of my Goodreads pals pick up--and devour with great pleasure--the three books of The Hunger Games, and it's brought me no end of joy to see that my recommendations worked out well for them. But does a hit series really need me to give it a few extra readers? Or should I have directed them to Big Girl Small, a great novel with a smart, edgy protagonist, that has yet to make it to the best-seller list? Doesn't one of them need more good word-of-mouth than the other?

Next week, Book Expo America (BEA) lands in New York, and with it come a slew of presentations and pushes to booksellers. Publishers want them to feature and promote those titles and authors that they have high hopes for in the next year, and they draw buzz by putting major authors in prominent places, hosting breakfasts, shaking hands, schmoozing at parties. But little authors don't generate buzz without big authors backing them up--big blurbs, big introductions. It becomes not about how good your book is, but who's capable of putting you in a prominent place for the buyers and the media to notice you. It frustrates me to no end that, in an industry that's all about creation, who you know becomes much more important than who you are.

But could it really work any other way? Could little authors turn into big authors simply because of word-of-mouth? When people start to self-publish e-books through Amazon, and self-promote through Twitter and Facebook, do they need all the fireworks of the fancy promotional push? If authors are willing to promote themselves--to push themselves as products to readers and publishers alike--then their future audience should be as reachable as those who rely on book review sections and endcap displays...right?

I'm not much of a pusher, and I can't do much beyond recommending the books that spark enthusiasm in me. But it seems like there's got to be a middle-ground between conversational recommendations and gigantic Book Expos, where authors of sizes and readers of all predilections can find each other and see what they're really up to.

Friday, May 13, 2011


It seems these days everyone has an opinion on the ubiquitous nature of the ebook, its effects on our culture, and the power it has to shape our experience of reading a good book. Often times the least likely candidates to espouse a given opinion or come down strongly on the matter one way or the other do. (I know people who could build a small house with all the books they own and still send handwritten letters who can’t say enough about their ipad or e-reader or kindle, and a few technology junkies who just don’t understand how someone could give up the unmistakable pleasure of cracking a spine of a book for the first time, its glossy jacket yet to earn its first fingerprint smudge.) While the buzz the e-advancement created was at first limited to the publishing industry and its closest followers, it’s now a phenomenon the effects of which can be seen everywhere.

This great debate on the mode in which we absorb our literature has now apparently extended to two of New York’s finest institutions: The New York Yankees and the New York Mets. Just last night at my inaugural meeting of a delightful new book club, one of the girls there was indignant (rightly so) about a recent experience at Yankee Stadium. She was prohibited from entering the stadium with the e-reader she had in her bag. The security guard pointed out to her that it was a formal, written rule found in their official online guidelines and indeed, I just confirmed that they do explicitly prohibit “Tablets (eg Kindles or ipads)” on their website. This unlucky ticket holder suspected that the franchise just didn’t want the camera to pan to people in the stadium reading, an indication of a less than exciting game, but she couldn’t help but notice a girl who walked in just after her with an armload full of good old fashioned books.

Having just scoured the Met’s website, I can find no indication in their official rules that they have any similar restriction. As Ben pointed out to me, the Yankees just have more rules and tighter security in general. While this is true, it doesn’t change the fact that if you’re such an avid reader you like to sneak in a few pages (or screens) in between innings, there are less ways you’ll be able to do it over on Yankee Way. It seems the team with the longer history has also, whether intentionally or not, set the stage for doing things the old fashioned way.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Dr. Seuss Comes to Park Slope!

People love to talk about how the seasons affect them. It colors everything from small talk over cocktail hours to descriptions of seasonal affective disorder in college psychology books. The mild, sun-filled days of spring are said to dry out winter woes, and for people like my mother, who claims alternately to “swell” and “melt” in the high heat, the fall—with its pumpkin spice lattes, ruby-colored apples, and gaudy Halloween costume displays—is cause for a long, deep sigh of relief. For a long time, such talk was lost on me. Admittedly, part of this is the intensity and quick turnover of my high-low pendulum. I like to run six miles then eat a 3,000 calorie meal, stay up all night writing a paper or reading a manuscript and then sleep the following weekend away. Who, I’ve always, wondered, can wait six months or a year for their next purely good, happy, decadent spell, or reprieve from the rougher, more challenging stretches we all go through, no matter how long or short lived?

It turns out, you’re never too old to change your tune. I moved to Park Slope six years ago and every year I am dazed and awed anew by the purple and white cherry blossoms that line the streets of the neighborhood come April. They’re also in Ohio, from where I hail, but because there’s so much more green, open space there, and because they’re more spread out, they don’t have quite the same effect. Though they can also be found throughout the city, there’s something about Park Slope’s brownstone architecture that makes the trees feel particularly suited to it, and I’ve never found another neighborhood with quite so many of them. Seeing them each year makes me want grass stain up every pair of pants I own playing in the park, and then make ice cream from scratch. They absolutely and fundamentally change my mood every time I see them, no matter how long the day or dreary the task at hand, and the fact that this unparalleled anecdote to the pitfalls of human existence is a seasonal one, sure to be gone by the first hint of summer, only makes it feel that much more magical.

And here’s where the great Doctor of this blog’s title enters the game. He is wed to this moody glimpse of the human psyche because these trees are almost uncannily Seussian in appearance. I would even go so far as to say the trees function in a Seussian capacity. Whimsical, colorful stimulants to even the crankiest and most cynical of adult imaginations, the cherry blossoms embody the spirit of the great author’s works. They're just the sort of exotic, colorful creation he would splash his pages with. Because the petals of the flower have started to fall in large numbers, the Park Slope sidewalks are blanketed in a colorful, enchanted carpet of them, and sometimes, when you’re particularly lucky, it even seems to be raining flower petals. The effect is that the presence of the trees is all encompassing—above, below, on the way down—just as the imaginary worlds of Seuss’s books are. Seuss made a career out of celebrating the wonders and possibilities of this world—the places and things we’ll discover if we’re bold enough to venture—and I’ve found little to trump these trees on that front. I think Seuss would have liked them. Maybe he did.

I have been convinced of this and have been singing this tune to anyone who will listen for almost as long as I’ve had the pleasure to live among these trees. Very recently, though, it was reinforced ten fold when I happened to actually read a Dr. Seuss book right before I journeyed to my Park Slope cherry-blossomed home. This wasn’t intentional. I had ordered the book awhile ago at work as part of the free book selection we have a few times a year, and found it when was cleaning out my mailbox when catching up after vacation. Reading it was simply a procrastination tool. My walk home that night, undertaken just an hour after reading the final pages of the book, made for one of the most satisfying literary experience in a long and fulfilling career of reading. It was a childhood pleasure brought to life, and one I won’t soon forget.

I’ve gathered what’s below in an attempt to entice everyone to go out and see this for themselves. My original plan was to spend the weekend getting in touch with my inner Ansel Adams and take mind-blowing photos that would capture every bit of the trees’ splendor to share on Monday. When I called the Brooklyn Botanical Garden to see how much longer we’d have to enjoy the trees, though, the woman I spoke to said they’d be in “peak bloom” this weekend. By Monday, then, it would be too late to tell you to go. The pictures I do have to share were stolen in the narrow slice of time between my commute home and sunset, and to be honest they don’t come close to capturing the epic delights of the trees. I almost didn’t share them at all but changed my mind because they do capture some shade of what I’m talking about (and because I nearly got hit by a car several times in the process of taking them!). For the full extent of what awaits you, though, you’ll have to take my word and go see for yourself. Get up early this Saturday or Sunday, prepare a big breakfast of green eggs and ham, and go!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Put On Your Crown

Set your alarm clocks, dust off the teapot, and pop to the shops for some crumpets: Prince William and Kate Middleton get married on Friday (at 6 a.m. EST)! Personally, I won’t be watching—I’m firmly wed to my bed, and nothing will tear us asunder before 8 a.m. on weekdays—but I will definitely be spending a lot of Friday gobbling up all the photographs and breathless reportage. What dress did she wear? Which tiara did she pick? Did they really put a disco ball up in the Palace? HOW LONG WAS THE KISS, AND WAS THERE TONGUE?

It’s incredibly alluring, this notion that the bride will walk into Westminster Abbey as Kate and walk out as Princess Catherine. After all, we have been inculcated since birth with the myth of royal metamorphosis. Our ancestors were, too: spend any time with folk tale scholars and you will soon see how nearly all cultures seem to have, or have had, a version of this transformation in their literature. Contemporary Western fantasies can be traced back to the 17th century, when Charles Perrault immortalized stories like Cendrillon, ou La petite Pantoufle de Verre in his collection of fairy tales; although he is considered responsible for the addition of the pumpkin (reading up on pumpkin symbolism is actually really interesting, by the way), his inspiration clearly came from past cultures. Writing in the 1st Century B.C., the Greek historian Strabo tells in Book 17, Chapter One, of his Geography the story of Rhodopis, the "Egyptian Cinderella." (Claudius Aelianus—Aelian—also mentions Rhodopis in Varia Historia). There is a Chinese story called "Ye Xian," dated 850 A.D., that follows the Cinderella plot, and a Gaelic legend.

Prince William's new bride would do well to read up on the origins of the princess myth, but I'd also suggest that she study its more contemporary iterations. I expect she's already read A Little PrincessFrances Hodgson Burnett's endearing, if a bit overly moralistic, exploration of what it really means to be royal. As young Sara Crewe proclaims:

“Whatever comes,” she said, “cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it."

Princess Catherine can also turn to biography. The critically-lauded Hannah Pakula introduces us to"Vicky," Queen Victoria's beloved eldest daughter, in An Uncommon Woman (which I highly recommend), while Tina Brown takes us back to the more recent past in her infamous book The Diana Chronicles.

But what of us, the commoners who will always remain so, despite our childhood wishes for a prince? Again, we can turn to the inimitable Sara Crewe for comfort:

"I am a princess. All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics. Even if they dress in rags, even if they aren't pretty, or smart, or young. They're still princesses. All of us."

(Or we can go here.)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cultured Expectations

Two weeks ago, Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for NPR's cultural program Fresh Air, released her review of a Korean novel, Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin, upon its publication in the United States. Corrigan is usually extremely balanced in her reviews, even when she doesn't love the book, and so it was a real shock that her review of Shin's novel turned out to be a full-on condemnation. Her criticisms were not just of the writer's style, or of specific plot details, but of the novel's entire premise. " I was stranded in a Korean soap opera decked out as serious literary fiction," she said, "If there's a literary genre in Korean that translates into 'manipulative sob sister melodrama, Please Look After Mom is surely its reigning queen." Corrigan concludes her review by urging American readers to seek out other literary options "rather than knocking back the wine and reaching for the cheap consolations of kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction."

My opinions are not those of the publisher, and I have not read the book, but Corrigan's review, and the dozens of comments she received afterwards, prompted the same questions that arose as I read my book for TK last month, a piece of historical fiction about post-war Vietnam--what kinds of cultural baggage do we bring to the books we read? As a reviewer, how well-informed am I supposed to be, not just about literature, but all forms of cultural expression? And if I don't understand the cultural context of a book, does that make it anathema to me?

Corrigan's review undoubtedly reeks of ethnocentricism--she admits that she writes from a Western perspective "indoctrinated in resolute messages about 'boundaries' and 'taking responsibility'; I kept waiting for irony; a comic twist in the plot; a reprieve." Corrigan is right in that the vast majority of American fiction, especially those tearjerkers destined for embrace by the best-seller lists and book clubs, is resolved with happy endings, rarely with a closing spoonful of doubt and blame and unending guilt. But this owes a great deal to a literary tradition rooted in stories of Christian redemption--so of course we've come to expect the happy endings. But ideas of redemption express themselves differently across different cultures--a novel written from a Buddhist perspective might let characters find redemption when they give up their personal desires; a story rooted in Greek mythology might only resolve a character's conflict once they have returned to their place of origin. But if you're reading like Corrigan did, the expectations for conventional narrative get in the way of exploring something new.

This brings me to something that I think many readers have discovered, and appreciate: fiction is the easiest and cheapest form of travel. We read fiction for a lot of reasons--entertainment pleasure, intellectual challenges, emotional growth--but we also read to expose ourselves to something unknown. Your passport may lack stamps, but if you build your library across many traditions, you can easily travel the world. I can go to India with Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, to Japan with Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, to Mexico with Roberto Bolaño's 2666, and yes, to Pakistan and Afghanistan with Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea. Methinks part of the popularity of Eat, Pray, Love was not in its self-help feel-good ending, but in its geographic scope of Italy, India, and Indonesia. If you read literature in translation, the writer becomes a guide not just to a landscape, but to a whole set of cultural expectations, and you leave the work exposed to an entirely new series of ideas and possibilities. Reviewers can't be always be cultural authorities--if so, book review editors would have to provide big travel budgets--but they should be cultural omnivores. If Corrigan was turned off because the subject of motherhood from the Korean perspective proved too strangely foreign for her exploration, then one has to wonder what exactly she bothered to pick up the book at all. If you don't want to travel, then please, stay at home and leave the journey for the enthusiastic.

But of course, even if you do agree to take the journey, you may not like what you find...You can't force a book to be pleasurable if you can't make an emotional connection to it. But there, of course, is what I find one of the greatest potentialities in any book I pick up: I may really, really hate it. Not everyone reads to skate placidly across a narrative, and sometimes, you really want the experience of a rollercoaster, the narrative throwing you into wildly polarized opinions and emotions. For all the books I've loved, I learned just as much from the ones I hated--I gritted my teeth with disgust at American Psycho and Less Than Zero, groaned with annoyance at The Devil Wears Prada, and openly yelled at the characters in Freedom. But none of these reads were at any point a waste of time, and I never once put them down because I disagreed with them. And this was the point where I really fought with Corrigan's perspective: she recommends that the American readers go for Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids instead of Shin's novel. This is fine--Just Kids is a great read, one that many people have loved--but to suggest that reading is an either/or experience, that somehow one book should be substituted for another, misses the whole point of why we read. The sad, beautiful fact that we're going to miss almost everything is somewhat inevitable, but being "well-read" isn't about reading everything. It's about reading widely, generously, and with an open mind.

It's been a week full of literary highs and lows: first the potential falsehoods (and excuses) of Greg Mortenson's best-selling memoir Three Cups of Tea, then the glorious one-two punch of Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer win and HBO development deal, then today's release of the Time 100 that includes all kinds of literary tastemakers from the past year (Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Chua, George R.R. Martin, and Patti Smith, among many others). All of these serve as reminders that, while we may gnash our teeth over the impending publishing apocalypse, every day writers and their work make news, incite conversation, and create reasons for the reading public to participate in a dialogue about what makes good literature. I'm happy to know that books can stimulate an exchange of ideas...it'd be nice if Corrigan could've felt the same way.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mornings with the Twits

Those brilliant Brits at Penguin's Puffin imprint. For the next few weeks, children in the U.K. will be waking up to excerpts of some of Roald Dahl’s beloved stories on the back of their cereal boxes. The imprint has struck a deal with ASDA grocery stores to run two hundred word extracts from The BFG, The Witches, The Twits, Danny, the Champion of the World and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on at least 10 million cereal boxes, in hopes of reaching households that wouldn’t normally be exposed to Roald Dahl.
I’ve only got one thing to say: It’s bloody well time. I’d like to suggest other places where literature could be placed. How about printing an excerpt of an exciting new novel on the back of boarding passes? Hello, you’re gonna be delayed. How about laminating literature to the table tops of trendy restaurants to read while you wait for your perpetually just-running-a-few-minutes-behind friend. I’d also like to suggest that we ban those foul-looking toenail fungus ads that we often see inside subway cars and instead run chunks of literature, for when your hands are too full to pull out a book. How about pasting pages of a book on the inside of a slow-moving elevator? The world has plenty of space and time for literature, it seems. Also, I’d also love it if someone could hold up something to read while I blow dry my hair in the mornings. In the meantime, let’s all hope Dahl’s magic inspires some of the little ones to ask Mummy and Daddy to buy them a book.