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.