Cambridge, Mass., library rejects collection of J.F. Powers' letters

  • Article by: LAURIE HERTZEL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 9, 2013 - 1:00 AM

The daughter of Minnesota literary lion J.F. Powers published his letters. The book was rejected.

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Katherine Powers published a collection of her father’s letters but her library wasn’t interested in a copy. “They asked me if the book is on the New York Times bestseller list and when I confessed that it wasn’t, they said they didn’t want it.”

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For writer Katherine Powers, getting an agent, getting published, getting reviewed — that was the easy part. But getting her book placed in her hometown public library? Impossible.

Powers is the oldest daughter of distinguished writer J.F. Powers, the first Minnesota author 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 letters that revealed his angst and apprehensions about domestic life. He was troubled by spending so much time earning money to support his family 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,” which was published this fall by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The book, both scholarly and interesting, has been widely reviewed and praised in the Star Tribune, the New Yorker, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere.

Recently, Powers noticed that her own library system — the one in Cambridge, Mass., where she lives — didn’t have a copy. So she offered to donate one.

No thanks, they said. Powers tried to explain the significance of the book. Still, the library wasn’t interested.

“They asked me if the book is on the New York Times bestseller 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.”

Cambridge library officials declined to comment Friday.

After seeing Powers’ Facebook post, however, the Cambridge Library manager of public services sent her an e-mail thanking her for the offer of her book — but continuing to reject it.

“The library would have no room for anything else if we accepted everything we are offered!” the message said, in part.

Libraries, with limited budgets and shelf space, face the problem of hundreds of recommendations for their collections. The Hennepin County Library system has an online form for people who wish to recommend a book. (Not for Powers’ book; there are six copies in the collection and 19 people waiting to read it.)

Ramsey County gets between 10 and 15 recommendations and requests a day — more than 1,000 since March.

“We look at: Did it get reviewed, who’s published it, what kind of book is it, is it something people would be interested in?” said reference librarian Mary Moran, who chooses adult fiction for the Ramsey County library system. “And then we make a decision like we would for anything.”

Powers, meanwhile, in the great tradition of her father, has written a letter to the Cambridge library trustees and the library director. This whole business, she noted, “is, among other things … a perfect example of ‘policymaking’ trumping common sense.”

Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302 Twitter: @StribBooks

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