For writer Katherine Powers, getting published might have been the easy part. Then she tried to get her book placed in the public library. Now THAT was hard. And, so far, impossible.
Powers is the oldest daughter of writer J.F. Powers, the first Minnesota writer to win a National Book Award in fiction (in 1963, for "Morte d'Urban"). He and his wife, Betty Wahl, also a writer, raised a big family in Collegeville, Minn., near St. Cloud, where Powers taught at St. John's University. Powers was a prodigious writer of fascinating, troubled letters that revealed his angst and apprehensions about family life. He was troubled by spending so much time making money to support his children when, he felt, he should be writing. ("Should a giraffe have to dig dandelions, or a worm have to fly a kite?" he wondered.)
His daughter collected several hundred of these letters in a new book, "Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963," published this fall by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, one of the most prestigious of the big New York Publishers.
It is a book both scholarly and interesting, and it has been widely reviewed (the Strib review is here), in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times, and elsewhere.
Recently, Powers noticed that her own library--the one in Cambridge, Mass., where she lives--didn't have a copy. Other libraries in the system had it, and all of them were checked out. So she brought a copy down to the Cambridge library and offered it to them.
No go. She explained the significance of the book. Not interested.
"They asked me if the book is on the NYT best-seller list and when I confessed that it wasn't, they said they didn't want it," Powers wrote on Facebook. "Go away, was the dynamic, community-oriented message."
Library officials declined to comment for this blog. The library director is out until Tuesday, they said, and she is the only person who can speak publicly on the matter. When asked for the policy--is it true that a book must be on the New York Times best-seller list to qualify for donation?--they again declined to comment. We must wait until Tuesday.
Powers, meanwhile, has written a letter to the library trustees and the director, which she also shared on Facebook. it says, in part, "The idea that a local author's book, published by a reputable publisher, which has been widely reviewed, should not be in her local library—and is, in fact, refused a place in it—would be unbelievable except that it is simply another instance of highhanded bureaucratic rationale trumping commonsense and, not to put too fine a point on it, decency."
This whole business, she added, "is, among other things ... a perfect example of 'policy-making' trumping common sense."
Tuesday. Perhaps it will all become clear on Tuesday.
I have to admit, I am wary of all the "best book" lists that start cropping up this time of year. Publishers Weekly has announced its 101 best books of the year; Good Reads is currently seeking votes from you on best books in multiple genres; and book critics (including me, I must admit, a bit shamefacedly) are busily writing their "What to Read" recommendations for Salon's end-of-the-year What to Read Awards. (Here's mine from last year.)
And yet, these lists fill me with angst. I love to read them, but I'm suspicious. Because who has read everything? Who has even seen everything?
Who has read all the new novels, or all the new memoirs? Nobody, that's who. So how can anyone pronounce anything "the best"?
And who can legitimately say what the best book of the year is when there are so many different kinds of books, so many different purposes for books? Even splitting it up by genre doesn't quite do it--how do you compare Lawrence Wright's "Going Clear" (his history/expose of the Church of Scientology) against, say, Jill Lepore's biography of Benjamin Franklin's sister? Or against Howard Norman's beautiful memoir? They are such different books!
So now that I've talked us all out of these lists, I'm asking you to help me come up with one. All I want is for you to write and tell me the best book you read all year.
This will not be a ranked list. There is no voting. Please do not seize the opportunity to flood my e-mail (as some have) with persuasive (though nearly identical) messages in support of one particular locally published mystery. It will not work! I am too smart.
I'm just looking for a brief note from you telling me the best book you read this year--the title, the author, and why it was so good. It does not have to be a book published this year; it can be any book, though of course new books are always of interest when it comes to gift-buying.
Please send your messages to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and please include your name and city of residence.
We'll run your suggestions and praise on Dec. 1, along with our recommendations for fiction, nonfiction, gift books, regional books, memoir, biography and our second annual "Critic's Choice" awards. Yep, Another list of best books....
Guy Eggers might have said it best last night, or at least most succinctly, when he told the crowd (and it was a big crowd) at Micawber's Bookstore, "You want good content--good things to read." How a person reads--on a Kindle or an iPad, on a book or a Nook--is, ultimately, less important.
E-books, said Patrick Thomas, editor of Milkweed Editions--"that's just another format. It's all reading."
Eggers, co-editor of Thirty-Two Magazine, Thomas, and several others were addressing the issue of how our reading habits have changed in a digital world. The consensus seemed to be that, well, we are still reading, avidly, and print is doing fine, and content is the more interesting question after all.
(Though it's true that a panel of bookish people talking to folks gathered in an indie bookstore might have had a wee bit of optimism fueling their opinions. The discussion was sponsored by Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, more book-lovers.)
The panel moderator, MPR arts reporter Marianne Combs, got things rolling by asking the crowd how many folks owned a smart phone: Nearly every hand shot up. How many own an e-reader or tablet? Again, most hands.
"And how many of you read predominately from a digital device?" Not one hand raised, and Combs said, "God bless you all."
Caroline Casey, marketing director of Coffee House Press, and Thomas of Milkweed Editions both talked about how their publishers have embraced digital as an opportunity to do things differently and reach out in more directions. Thomas said, for example, that Milkweed's online catalog includes authors reading aloud from their forthcoming books--something that would have been prohibitively expensive just a few years ago. (You can take a listen here.)
And Casey talked about how Coffee House is reinivisioning itself not just as a traditional publisher of books but as an arts organization that connects readers and writers in a multitude of ways--through readings, events, exhibits and experiences, both real and virtual.
"We decided that our role was to connect readers and writers whether or not they buy the book," she said.
All of the participants agreed that turning their backs on digital would be futile. "You don't want to hold off the technology by saying you're stealing from us," said Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's. "The music industry did that to great failure. For me, the thing is to fight against the idea that books are dying. That is not true."
With the digital world still in flux--there are no standard platforms for e-books or e-magazines, and devices are changing all the time--print offers stability. While Thirty-Two Magazine does have a website, they do not offer e-versions of the magazine and instead rely primarily on print--gorgeous print, high-quality paper, a magazine you can carry around and read and touch, said co-editor Katie Eggers. Creating digital versions for all the various e-readers would be prohibitively expensive--at least as expensive as creating a print version, she said.
Most panelists predicted a widening split between print and digital, with readers continuing to buy print copies of books they admire and want to keep and re-read, and with digital eating up the bulk of more disposable books--romance, mysteries, soft porn and other books that people read once, perhaps as a guilty pleasure.
Thomas said it's not uncommon for readers to buy an e-book as a convenient, less-expensive way to sample a book--and then, if they like it, go on to buy the book in print. "Quality really trumps some of the aspects of ease that e-books bring," Thomas said. "E-books are great for ease."
But for something you want to keep, there's nothing like a beautiful book. (Weyandt held up Milkweed's "Things that Are" by Amy Leach and Coffee House's "Potluck Supper With Meeting to Follow" by Andy Sturdevant as examples--both beautifully designed and illustrated hardcover books.)
And in the Twin Cities, where three of the four major literary presses live (and the panelists joke that they're going to force the fourth, Copper Canyon Press, to relocate here some day) and where libraries are vibrant and readers are everywhere, the health of the printed book is particularly robust.
"We see ourselves fighting a culture that is always telling us we're gonna die," said Weyandt. Not true, he said, and all in attendance last night almost certainly agreed.
When I travel, I like to scope out the other passengers' reading material. This is getting harder to do. The last time I flew, back in May, not one person in the gate area was carrying a book, at least not a visible book. One guy had a newspaper (God bless him). Everyone else was peering at screens of various sizes--phones and tablets and the occasional e-reader.
They make it so hard to snoop.
It might be that people in transit prefer digital devices because they're lighter weight than books. (Although, of course, no flight attendant will make you put your book away ten minutes before landing.) Or it might be that all of those people I saw read on devices all the time. Who knows?
This whole madness about the changing world of reading--how we read, and where, and on what, and how we think about what we read--will be the topic of discussion Tuesday evening at an event sponsored by the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library.
The panel discussion, "How We Read Now," will be moderated by MPR arts reporter Marianne Combs. The panelists will be Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's Bookstore; Chris Fischbach, publisher of Coffee House Books; Patrick Thomas of Milkweed Editions; Katie and Guy Eggers, founding editors of Thirty-Two Magazine, and yours truly.
The event is free and begins at 7 p.m. at Micawber's, 2238 Carter Av., St. Paul. Come on by and help us figure out this new complicated world.
Bly won the National Book Award in 1968 for his second collection, "The Light Around the Body." His latest book contains new and selected poems spanning 50 years and includes selections from his 2011 collection, "Talking into the Ear of a Donkey."
Earlier this year, Bly received the Poetry Society of America's highest honor, the Frost Medal.
The Oct. 16 event begins at 7 p.m. at Willey Hall and is sponsored by the Upper Midwest Literary Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries, which holds Bly's papers. The event is free but reservations are requested. (Follow this link.)
A reception will follow the reading, and books will be available for sale.
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