05/31/12 10:00pm

Probably, everybody needs to run away to sea at least once. In the first chapter of Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick,’ our narrator, Ishmael, explains it as “a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul … whenever … it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

I have always loved the beginning of “Moby Dick” and have read it many times with delight and high expectation of continuing and finishing the whole book, but I never do. I get bogged down somewhere. I forgive myself for this. I think people are allowed to put down books that are not working for them.

I, myself, ran away to sea when I was 17, but it was on a Norwegian freighter, not a whaling ship or a four-master like the tall ships that will be in Greenport Harbor this weekend. The ship was cheaper and, I thought, more exciting than an airplane. I spent two weeks of a damp, drizzly December mostly locked in my cabin to avoid the unwanted attentions of the captain and the only other passenger aboard. I looked out at gray water meeting gray sky, saw some whales, read a lot of books and felt all the enormous feelings that 17-year-olds can feel.

Written by a 19-year-old, ‘Maiden Voyage’ by Tania Aebi is the true story of the first American woman and youngest person ever to circumnavigate the globe alone. She went in 1987, in a 26-foot sloop her father offered as an alternative to a college education with the stipulation that she sail solo around the world. The maiden survived storms, collisions and loneliness and lived to tell the tale, like Joshua Slocum before her in his famous 1900 book, ‘Sailing Alone Around the World.’

Another fabulous true story is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘The Story of a Ship-wrecked Sailor,’ written in 1955, when Marquez was a young journalist, as a series of newspaper articles. The book’s subtitle is “who drifted on a life raft for ten days without food or water, was proclaimed a national hero, kissed by beauty queens, made rich through publicity and then spurned by the government and forgotten for all time.” Apparently the Colombian dictatorship of the time was unhappy when the sailor and the journalist contradicted the official version that there had been a storm (there hadn’t) and that the ship, a destroyer, had not been overloaded with contraband cargo (it had been). Soon there was a new dictatorship, which was also unhappy with Garcia Marquez — and vice versa.

Two other superb nonfiction accounts of going off to sea are John Moynihan’s ‘The Voyage of the Rose City’ and Harvey Oxenhorn’s ‘Tuning the Rig: A Journey to the Arctic.’ Mr. Moynihan, son of New York’s famous and beloved senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, left Wesleyan University to ship out in the Merchant Marine for a 45-day trip that turned into a four-month ordeal and learning experience. Harvey Oxenhorn sailed on The Regina Maris, a white oak barkentine built in 1908 and once a feature of the Greenport waterfront. When he signed on, Mr. Oxenhorn had romantic expectations about the voyage from Boston to Greenland to study humpback whales. A poet and an academic, he was unprepared for the rigors and discipline of shipboard life. (He must have gotten bogged down somewhere while reading “Moby Dick” or he would have had more of a clue.) Eventually, he begins to get a grip on how he fits into the little world of the crew and the big world of economic and environmental conundrums. Whales are only one part of it.

One of my favorite stories about a young person going off to sea was written by Maurice Sendak. The book is ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and the young sailor is Max, who is sent to his room without any supper for making mischief of one kind and another. Luckily “an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.” He becomes king of all wild things and leads a wild rumpus, until he gets lonely and wants “to be where someone loved him best of all.” He also smells good things to eat, so he sails back “into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.” This is an awesome picture book, with a sea monster (but no whales), many, many fewer words than “Moby Dick” and a much happier ending.

May all our voyages into the great unknown, including yours, dear departed Maurice, resolve themselves with such wisdom, comfort and exuberance.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

04/21/12 9:00am

April may well be the cruelest month: Fighting season begins again as the mountain passes thaw in Afghanistan, tornadoes rampage throughout the Midwest, taxes must be paid and we mourn the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes, who both purportedly died April 23, 1616.

People in those days had such interesting lives and yet they were not tempted to write memoirs. I had no idea that when he wasn’t writing “Don Quixote,” Cervantes was collecting taxes, provisioning the ill-fated Armada, languishing in jail for “financial discrepancies” occasioned by the previous occupations, being sold into five years of slavery in Algeria and losing an arm fighting in the battle of Lepanto. All that, some poetry and plays and inventing the modern novel besides, made him a very busy man.

And Shakespeare, if he really was Shakespeare and not some earl or other, will always be with us. I’ve never liked the earl theories. They all seem to be based on some deep snobbery that says a mere glover’s son, a provincial, an actor for heaven’s sake, could not possibly have been able to write so well. One recent film, “Anonymous,” champions the notion that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays. Another, “Coriolanus,” takes a story from the first century, written as a play in the 17th century, and turns it into a blistering 20th-century political spectacle. Hollywood and the rest of us are not done with Shakespeare yet.

April is full of bookish events: Poetry Month, Library Week, Pulitzer Prizes. Partly because of Cervantes and Shakespeare, we are celebrating the first U.S. World Book Night on April 23.  World Book Night is an annual celebration designed to spread a love of reading and books. Following its warm reception in England and Ireland last year, tens of thousands of people will go out into their communities to spread the joy and love of reading by giving out free World Book Night paperbacks. Two of those people will be Floyd Memorial Library director Lisa Richland, who will be giving out copies of Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids,’ and me, who will be giving out Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried.’

It is a little like our day jobs, giving books to people, but it will be interesting to go out into the community instead of waiting for people to come to us. It will be different to give people books for them to keep forever instead of expecting them to be returned.

“The Things They Carried” is about soldiers during the Vietnam War and might be particularly meaningful to veterans of that or any other war, or to young people who may be contemplating military life. Actually, it is so well written and so important that I can’t imagine anybody, young or old, male or female, of whatever political persuasion, not being moved and uplifted by the sheer beauty and artistry of it. They say no one finishes a book the same person as when she started. Giving people books is a powerful responsibility and some serious fun.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder what is up with those Pulitzer Prize people? For the first time since 1977, they declined to pick a winner in the fiction category. Finalists included ‘Swamplandia!’ by Karen Russell and ‘The Pale King’ by David Foster Wallace, both quite worthy works of fiction. What does not giving a prize mean, except some sort of dysfunction of the committee? Is it because it’s in New York? New York City has the dubious distinction of not having a one city/one book program like most other civilized places, even Long Island. Apparently the various committees could never agree on which book to choose so the city ends up with nada, zilch, bupkus while Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, etc., enjoy a month during which everyone is encouraged to read the same book and talk about it.

On Long Island, from Garden City to Greenport, from Massapequa to Montauk, many of us have been reading ‘The Lost Wife’ by Alyson Richman. Ms. Richman has been speaking at various Long Island libraries and there’s talk that the Nassau Library System is trying to organize a trip to Prague this fall to see some of the places described in the novel. One of which would be Terezin, the Nazi ghetto and way station to Auschwitz. The novel is cleverly constructed in the way the story moves backward and forward in time.

It is an amazing book and it makes me wish that Long Island had more mass transit and more cafés and park benches — those great places where if you see a perfect stranger reading the same book you are, or have just read, you can accost them and have an impromptu book discussion. Hmmm, there is a place near here that has mass transit, cafés and park benches, but you’re unlikely to find people reading the same book. Oh well, their loss; we provincials will have survived cruel April with our various bookish diversions, our Poetry Month, Library Week, Long Island Reads and World Book Night.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

03/23/12 1:06pm

Birds do it every year, this spring migrating thing, with its accompanying twittering racket. Public librarians do it once every two years at the Public Library Association conference, this year In Philadelphia. And what are the librarians twittering about this year? They are Twittering, tweeting, Facebooking and blogging about tweeting, Facebooking and blogging as tools for communicating with colleagues and library patrons. And they’re talking about the trends and forces that are changing books, reading and the ways librarians do their work.

As is often the case, there are two divergent trends that are either pulling in opposite directions or balancing each other out. One trend is toward more computers and automation: self-service checkout stations in the library and digital downloads of e-books being made available to patrons. The other trend is toward even more “high touch” customer service, which means more personalized and interactive conversations with more of our “power patrons,” those who come to the library frequently, borrow the most and attend programs regularly.

For years libraries were on an epic quest to capture the elusive non-user. It was thought that if we were attractive enough and nice enough and offered stuff for free, people couldn’t stay away, so we kept trying to be more attractive and nicer until we were going cross-eyed from the effort. And still the non-users were not using us.

Meanwhile, we were taking for granted our most loyal users, forgetting to ask them what they wanted, what they liked or didn’t like, what they were reading, who they were. It turns out that she, the national generic power patron, is about 46, makes around $61,000 per year, has children living at home and when she comes to her local public library she takes out multiple items in different formats: books, movies, music, magazines and downloads for her e-reader.

That last item, e-reader downloads, continues to be an issue. As of 2011, one in six Americans were using e-reader devices, more than 67 percent of libraries were offering access to e-books and patrons were checking out over 35 million digital titles. New studies are showing that a person who checks out an e-book from a public library often buys that same title and sometimes another book by the same author, and that the people who borrow e-books are the same people who buy e-books, just like the same people who borrow books are those who buy books.

Libraries do not put bookstores, publishers or authors out of business. We enhance their businesses. So why are some of the publishing houses acting so peculiar? Random House just upped the price of e-books to libraries by 300 percent. They change their pricing structure midstream, they limit how many times a title can be borrowed and they are so intent on squeezing every dime that they are losing sight of the big picture. Maybe their accountants and financial officers should look into the recent history of the music business.

It seems that when there is a shift in distribution format or system for an art form, the artists survive and continue to make art; a good percentage of them are starving, of course, but that’s normal for artists. Not good, but normal. Musicians are still making music and people are still listening to it, usually as a digital download. Or they go to live concerts. The people who didn’t survive the shift were bean-counting dinosaurs who, while the world was changing, were trying to squeeze dimes out in the narrowing space between the musicians and the listeners. And now there are bean-counting dinosaurs trying to get between authors and readers, writers and libraries.

There are many things changing about the world of books. One of them is that more and more books are being self-published and there is no longer the stigma around self-publishing that it’s for amateurs who couldn’t get an agent or be published by Random House, etc.

One title that has been on many lips was ‘50 Shades of Grey,’ a pseudonymous self-published e-book trilogy by a British author that started life as something called “fanfic,” a subgenre in which people write their own fiction using characters first created by other authors. According to what I’ve read about it, this particular fanfic is based on characters from “Twilight,” Stephenie Meyer’s popular vampire series for teens. This author has taken this relatively chaste world, changed the names and turned it into another sub-genre that is being called “mommy porn.” Is it homage or plagiarism? Admiration or desecration?

There are many delicately shaded nuances of opinion about all of these issues, but the incontrovertible fact is that “50 Shades of Grey” is a publishing phenomenon. It has sold more than 250,000 copies and the first volume was recently No. 1 on both Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Vintage, Random House’s paperback division, will be printing it for distribution in early April.

Meanwhile, back at the library, March has been a good month for reading Irish authors. I discovered a new author, Declan Hughes, whose ‘City of Lost Girls’ travels between Dublin and Los Angeles with great verve and excitement. Our book discussion group enjoyed Peter Carey’s ‘Parrot and Olivier in America,’ which could be seen as a sort of fanfic about De Toqueville, or at least an homage. Now we are reading ‘The Piano Teacher’ by Janice Y. K. Lee and next month we will participate in the Long Island Reads initiative by sharing ‘The Lost Wife,’ the debut novel by Long Island native Alyson Richman, with other Long Island readers. I look forward to sitting outside in the sun to do some of my reading, while listening to the twittering of actual birds.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

02/18/12 12:46pm

What if books, or novels anyway, are like wristwatches? They tell time. There are Rolexes and Piagets out there among the novels, finely crafted, beautifully designed, precious works of art with precisely jeweled movements. I think of the cogs and springs as the elements of plot, character and description that all must be precisely calibrated so the whole mechanism does exactly what it is supposed to do: have things happen that propel the reader forward, but with particularity of detail so the things that happen are firmly attached to the persons, places and times of the novel. And if indeed it is a finely crafted masterpiece, it remains beautiful and useful for a long time.

I am thinking about Charles Dickens, whose 200th birthday is being celebrated this year. Some of these classic “wristwatches” tell two times, the time in which they were made and the time in which they are being read, even if 100 or 200 years elapse.

There are also the sturdy little Timex novels. They tell the time, they are of their time, they will not last forever, but most of the time they are correct. They fill our bookshelves, our best-seller lists, our imaginations for a while and then they stop telling us the correct time. Or they go out of fashion.

Meanwhile, times change. Instead of the springs, gears and cogs that are sort of an 18th- or 19th-century Industrial Revolution metaphor embedded in the analog clock, we have the digital wristwatch. It tells the time, but there is a different science at work: luminous excited ions, glowing numbers that announce themselves as only themselves, not visually connected to their past or future. Twentieth- and 21st-century science as a metaphor for a newer kind of novel: Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon, Neal Stephenson, Haruki Murakami …

And beyond that, we have a demographic shift, from people who almost always wore wristwatches to generations who don’t wear watches because they can always check their cellphones for the time. Does that mean they are not reading novels? Or if they are, they are reading them in digital format?

And what about time, storytelling and self-awareness before there were wristwatches and novels? I’m thinking of Werner Herzog’s documentary film called “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” From 35,000 to 30,000 B.C. in the south of France, Paleolithic humans coexisted with Neanderthals, mammoths and cave bears. Over the course of 5,000 years they regularly visited a limestone cave complex although they didn’t live in it. What they did in it was make extraordinary art.

Using line, pigment and the contours of the natural rock, they made images of animals that seem to leap and flicker on the walls, telling stories about water holes, mating and fighting. Some of the images were done once and then altered or added to 3,000 years later.

When our ancestors visited the caves, what were they experiencing? Were the painted walls a backdrop for performances involving music and dance, storytelling, religion or magic, or were the pictures enough by themselves? How did they understand time? Who got to make the art and who chose? Why did they do it? We can’t answer these questions with scientific certainty, but we can think about them with the same sort of imagination that inspires us to write novels or invent timepieces, whether of the gear-and-spring or the glowing-electron variety.

Meanwhile, back in the contemporary world of regular novels and book discussions, there are some compelling novels by Lisa See that our group read a few months ago. ‘Shanghai Girls’ and the sequel, ‘Dreams of Joy,’ are about sisters who come from war-torn China to America in the 1930s, specifically, Los Angeles’ Chinatown. This is an immigration story of Asian people coming through Angel Island near San Francisco and settling in Los Angeles in the early days of the film industry, with the inevitable dislocation between generations that surfaces when the American-born daughter rejects her mother and aunt to return to Communist China.

Lisa See is the daughter of the author Carolyn See and I always find it amazing when children go into a family business like writing. It’s one thing to inherit a butcher shop, a watch factory or a brokerage house and another to collaborate with your mother on a couple of pseudonymous novels and then to strike out on your own, armed only with some learned skills and introductions to agents or publishers. Lisa See has written well-received novels set in more distant Chinese eras, ‘Peony in Love’ and ‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,’ and her writing is assured and graceful. The stories she tells about women whose societies undervalue them are consistently fascinating and moving. Time will tell whether they are Timexes or Rolexes or perhaps morph toward some new way of telling us the time and telling us who, at this moment, we are.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

01/21/12 12:21pm

January is the month for resolutions, for fresh starts, for trying to get things right. Mostly we focus on our bodies, trying to lose weight, get fitter, stronger and healthier. Sometimes we focus on getting better organized or being kinder. There is a list from an article in American Songwriter magazine that has been appearing on friends’ Facebook pages of 33 resolutions that Woody Guthrie wrote down in his own handwriting in 1942, full of very sensible advice to self, the 13th being “read lots good books.”

Just this week, author Walter Dean Myers was named the national ambassador for young people’s literature, a sort of poet laureate of the children’s book world who tours the country for two years, speaking at schools and libraries about reading and literacy. He will be urging people to read good books, including, no doubt, some of his own dark and realistic titles, “Autobiography of My Dead Brother,” “Monster,” “Bad Boy.” His is an urban, African-American voice writing gritty fiction that is far away from the wizards, dragons, English boarding schools and other recent staples of young people’s literature. But his own story, about how reading and then writing books rescued him from the violence and chaos of his environment, will surely resonate with many young people.

So the advice is to read good books, but the question is which ones are good for you? Someone asked Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson which books should be read by every intelligent person on the planet and he responded with a list of seven books, all available as free e-book downloads and all (except maybe the Bible) written by men:

The Bible, “The System of the World” by Isaac Newton, “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift, “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine, “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith, “The Art of War” by Sun Tsu and “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli.

Tyson is an astrophysicist and a very smart person, certainly entitled to his opinion — “If you read all of the works above, you will have profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world” — and it’s sort of cool that all those titles are available free for digital downloading, but it’s just one person’s list. And personally, I have gotten to the point where any list that excludes the half of the human race that I belong to is a list that I feel free to ignore.

One thing to consider about resolving to read more good books is that, like resolving to exercise more, eat healthier, be kinder, etc., one’s success will depend on some mental or spiritual ability, some kind of willpower or energy. When I am feeling energetic and strong, then I enjoy reading challenging books that force me to think in new ways. When I am feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, I read easier titles. Resolutions might be a good way of reminding oneself of one’s aspirations. Is this the year I will start rereading “Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust — in French this time? Probably not. Nor will I run a marathon or lose 20 pounds. But perhaps there are some realistic aspirations I can articulate and accomplish.

1. Read more poetry.
2. Read more short stories.
3. Use my online Goodreads account to keep track of and share my reading.
4. Explore new magazines and newspapers instead of depending on familiar ones.
5. Read books aimed at different age groups and demographics.
6. Read aloud to children when given the opportunity.
7. Try to read some French and Spanish beyond menus.
8. Every once in a while, read at least one book I wouldn’t think I’d like.

That last piece of advice is the one that motivated me to pick up “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. I am usually interested in the Man Booker winners but, for some reason, I’ve been avoiding Julian Barnes. Too English, too middle-aged, too refined, repressed — I don’t know, just not my type. But this novel, or novella at a scant 163 pages, was a revelation.

I must be careful not to give too much away, because it turns out to be a cleverly plotted page-turner masquerading as an elegiac memoir. More than one reviewer remarks that its short length is deceptive, because when you finish it, you will want to immediately reread it in its entirety. It is about aging, time, remorse, memory and history, about some of the very terrible things we can do to each other in our youth, about how we forget or make up stories so we can survive our middle age and how we can be derailed in old age by confronting what may be the truth. The whole book is unreliably narrated by a bald old man who is not especially sympathetic, but the elegant unfolding of the tale is mesmerizing, and it is a really good book. Exactly the sort of thing you should read if you are resolved to read some good books this year.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

12/25/11 4:48pm

I don’t know why people always say “I hate to say I told you so” when it’s perfectly clear that “I told you so” are some of the sweetest words in the language and people love to say them. What I am loving right now is that I told you so, dear readers, months and months ago, that all the gloom and doom about bookstores closing, books not being bought or read and the written word just lining up with the rest of the world to go to hell in a handbasket is at least a slight exaggeration, if not a downright alarmist fabrication.

Apparently, the first few weeks of the Christmas shopping season have been terrific for the booksellers this year, according to an article by Julie Bosman in the Dec. 13 New York Times titled “E-Books,Shmee-books: Readers Return to the Stores.”

Customers are attracted to this year’s vibrant selection and are not deterred by the higher prices of some titles. Books that might not have been expected to flourish in a time of economic gloom are flying off the shelves. Both ‘Harry Potter Page to Screen’ and ‘The Louvre: All the Paintings’ cost $75, ‘Mountain: Portraits of High Places’ weighs in at $85, while ‘The Art Museum’ published by Phaidon retails for $200.

Besides the coffee table books, regular nonfiction seems to be especially popular this year. ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson, ‘Catherine the Great’ by historian Robert K. Massie and the memoir ‘Then Again’ by actress Diane Keaton are doing well in the biography section, and a book by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman called ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ is a popular holiday gift, as are new fiction titles by bestselling authors like Janet Evanovich, Stephen King and Michael Connelly. Other big successes are ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides, ‘IQ84’ by Haruki Murakami, ‘The Dovekeepers’ by Alice Hoffman and ‘The Angel Esmeralda,’ a short story collection by Don DeLillo.

So perhaps the end of the world as we know it is on its way, but not here just yet. There is fear among the bookish that these e-book shmee-book reader things and tablets of various sorts will be given as presents this December and that subsequently all of civilization will crumble in January. It may happen. But meanwhile, it is more than interesting to me that the American Booksellers Association saw a 16 percent jump in the week including Thanksgiving, compared to the same period a year ago. Apparently people like going to bookstores and buying actual books to give as holiday presents to their friends and relatives during the great, dark gift-giving season and I, for one, think that’s terrific.

A terrific book that many younger readers will be given this year is ‘The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.’ Here’s the story behind “Chronicles”: In 1984, Chris Van Allsburg put out a book called “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” that had beautiful, mystifying, full-page drawings, each with a caption and the title of a story that the drawing was supposed to illustrate. The construct was that a person named Harris Burdick had brought just the drawings to a children’s book publisher on spec, the publisher loved them and wanted to see the complete stories, Burdick promised to bring them the next day, then disappeared and was never heard from again.

Since the book was published, it has been used as a springboard by teachers and librarians to inspire creative writing. Countless young people have chosen their favorite from the 14 drawings and let their imaginations create completed stories.

“The Chronicles of Harris Burdick” includes the original drawings with their titles and captions, but it has 14 different well-known authors each tackling one of them and writing it their way. Some of them are quite marvelous. Like its predecessor, the book is a great publishing idea and this one may help to introduce readers to some interesting writers, but I hope the original book will still be used as a springboard for other stories. This must not be the end of the mysteries of Harris Burdick, just an example of some ways of looking and thinking about them.

Also for younger readers: ‘Wonderstruck’ by Brian Selznick, the author/illustrator who won the Caldecott Medal in 2008 for ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret,’ which was the first time the Caldecott had been won by a novel. The Caldecott was designed to be awarded to a picture book, but “Hugo” is both a novel and a picture book and so is “Wonderstruck.” Both of them are very indebted to yet another format, that of film. Martin Scorsese just released the film version of “Hugo,” which features a most amazing opening shot that zooms down into and through Paris until you are inside the walls of a train station, where you meet the eponymous orphan whose adventures will immerse you in the earliest days of film itself, with Ben Kingsley as magician, impresario and film director George Melies. “Wonderstruck” may prove equally photogenic in a few years, but in the meantime, there is the book: hardcover, large, expensive and irresistible, apparently, to the holiday-minded, book-buying public.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

11/19/11 4:00am

One of the best things about going to the New York Library Association conference in Saratoga Springs a few weeks ago was the chance to listen to the writers R. David Lankes, Lewis Lapham and Chris Bohjalian.

R. David Lankes is a professor at the Syracuse library school and his books and talks are mainly of interest to the profession, so his talk, “Publisher of the Community: New Librarianship Unencumbered by our Stacks,” was riveting. He posits a future in which libraries are places to learn, create and collaborate, not consume and check out.
He said, “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities,” which may sound radical, but reminded me of when I was researching the origins of our library in Greenport. Back in the 1800s, there were various “improvement societies,” often run by a clergyman, whose members met monthly to share something of their experiences or talents. There were dramatic readings, poetry recitations, musical entertainments, travel talks and skits with costumes. A shared collection of books was an outgrowth of that community impulse that still informs much of what we do at libraries, but, according to Mr. Lankes, the sheer volume of books, shelves and stacks we have accumulated limit the time and space we can give over to community collaboration and knowledge creation. Something to think about and one reason that for some of us, the advent of e-readers is not completely terrible news.

Then I got to listen to Lewis Lapham, author of numerous books, most recently ‘Pretensions to Empire,’ who was for many years the editor of Harper’s Magazine and now edits Lapham’s Quarterly, A Magazine of History and Ideas. He is an aristocratic septuagenarian whose talk was not projected as a PowerPoint. He actually had the screen turned off, then sat and read his talk, written in his own hand, from a yellow pad, A bit of a self-described Luddite when it comes to technology, and the kind of thinker with a grasp of history that inevitably seems mostly bleak, he proved most genial and animated in the Q&A session after the talk.

I was predisposed to like Chris Bohjalian because I liked his first book, ‘Midwives.’ He talked about his new book, ‘The Night Strangers,’ which is doing pretty well despite the fact that it features ghosts instead of vampires (the ones getting all the attention these days). He talked about the two things that sparked the genesis of the novel. One was a nailed-shut door in the cellar of a house in rural Vermont that he and his wife had bought; the other was the news account of the successful emergency landing of a commercial plane in the Hudson River by Captain “Sully” Sullenberger.

In “The Night Strangers,” Mr. Bohjalian imagines the life of a pilot who attempts a similar emergency landing on Lake Champlain, but through no fault of his own fails in the attempt, and some of the passengers on his plane die. Bohjalian felt that in order to write the story as well as he could, he needed to experience a crash landing into water. He convinced the people who train National Guard pilots in Connecticut to let him do a training with them that, in a recreation of an airline cabin, involved being dunked into a huge tank, upside-down, restrained by a five-point harness with 38 seconds to unharness himself and swim toward a door. I guess I’ll have to read the book to see if I think the effort was worth it and how all that leads to ghosts and a mysterious cellar door.

One doesn’t have to travel as far as Saratoga Springs to hear writers talk about their work. Local libraries, including my own, make an effort to connect authors with readers on a regular basis. This fall, Floyd Memorial had a double reading featuring local authors Jackson Taylor and Terese Svoboda. I have already written in this column about Taylor’s debut novel, ‘The Blue Orchard,’ a fictionalized account of his grandmother’s life in Harrisburg, Pa., where she was the trusted white assistant to a powerful and politically connected black physician who performed abortions when it was illegal to do so. It’s a terrific book and Mr. Taylor did a lot of strenuous research of his own. Over 10 years, he talked to family members and spent time in Harrisburg libraries and courthouses, all while holding down a full-time job.

Terese Svoboda was recently featured on the NPR show “All Things Considered” talking about ‘Bohemian Girl,’ her fourth published novel, which is being widely hailed as a true American picaresque, part Huck Finn, part “True Grit” and a wholly original answer to Willa Cather’s iconic “My Antonia.” Listening to her read a bit from the beginning, where young Harriet has been sold as a slave by her father to settle his gambling debt with an eccentric Pawnee Indian who has an obsession with building mounds, you hear how Ms. Svoboda’s ability to manipulate language and characters propels you into a dark and strange side of the Western frontier.

Most recently, we hosted Tom Clavin, a journalist and nonfiction writer from Sag Harbor. He talked about his 2007 book, ‘Dark Noon: The Final voyage of the Fishing Boat Pelican,’ which recounts the tragedy that took place in 1951, when an overfull party fishing boat out of Montauk capsized and lost two-thirds of its passengers.

He also talked about his most recent book, ‘Last Men Out,’ co-authored with Bob Drury. You may remember a photograph of a helicopter on top of a building with a long line of people on ladders climbing up toward it. The erroneously captioned photo was widely believed for 36 years to be the last helicopter out of Saigon atop the roof of the U.S. Embassy. In fact, it was a photo of a CIA chopper on a nearby building the day before the final evacuation. When the “last” helicopter left Saigon, there were 11 Marines left on the roof of the embassy. Mr. Clavin masterfully told us the story up to a cliff-hanging moment of suspense, so that the whole audience was on tenterhooks, wanting to know what would happen next.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

11/04/11 12:24am

There is a wonderful new website called OccupyWriters.com that has an ever-lengthening alphabetical list of writers who are in support of Occupy Wall Street and a few meditations on the protest by several of them. On the list, each person is identified as the writer or editor of just one work, which is leveling, democratic and much easier to digest than complete bibliographies.

Of the meditations, I very much liked the first of “Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance”: “If you work hard, and become successful, it does not necessarily mean you are successful because you worked hard, just as if you are tall with long hair it doesn’t mean you would be a midget if you were bald.”

Lemony Snicket, also known as Daniel Handler, is the author of “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” a marvelous group of 13 dyspeptic books for literate children and their adults.

Other offerings include those by poet Anne Waldman, who writes most copiously; the novelist Francine Prose, who writes most movingly; and another writer (one who would be down there in Zucotti Park himself if he were still alive), who provides the best quote. In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman says: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”
That’s how you feel when you are there in the park: large and Whitmanesque with a poetic view of the huge diversity of humanity. It could make you cry, like Francine Prose, or dance to the beat of the drum circle, or go visit the library that is set up in one corner of the park. When I was there for the second time, all seven lined-up folding chairs were occupied by people reading donated paperbacks and the name-tagged librarians were busy sorting books into different categories, just like in a brick-and-mortar library. A library is not a building, it is a state of mind, a place where librarians do their work, a place where books and ideas are shared.

The number 13 reminds me of one of my favorite poems, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens. It seems new and shiny as a penny every time I read it, despite that it was first published in 1917. My mother recently rediscovered some favorite poetry books and spent several days reading and enjoying poems she hadn’t read in decades. People often think they don’t like to read poetry, even when they are avid readers of other forms. Poetry seems “hard,” which is odd since it’s really a way of playing with words.

A poet was the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s short poem “Slow Music” contains a stanza that made me think of our Long Island Sound beaches, like 67 Steps in Greenport:
I come too seldom down to the sea. But now I have come among good-sized stones with peaceful backs. The stones have been gradually walking backwards out of the sea.

“Preludes,” another of his poems, says: “Two truths draw nearer each other. One moves from inside, one moves from outside, and where they meet we have a chance to see ourselves.”

The Nobel Prize in Literature is not a popularity contest. Many Americans, including myself, had never heard of Tomas Tranströmer before he won the prize. Most of the Swedish writers we know are the writers of dark mysteries, nordic noir, like Stieg Larsson and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series or Henning Mankell with his Inspector Kurt Wallander. But the Nobel Prize will mean that some people will search out and read some of Tranströmer’s poetry and perhaps discover that reading poetry is not so “hard” and maybe they will find something there to play with.

One American writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature back in 1954 was Ernest Hemingway. He turns up as a character in a terrific new book by William Kennedy called ‘Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.’ William Kennedy is best known for his Albany cycle of novels, which includes “Legs,” “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game” and “Ironweed.”
Much of this new novel also takes place in Albany, on the day in 1968 when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. But we get to know our hero, Quinn, when he is a young journalist in Cuba in 1957, having encounters and interviews with Hemingway and Fidel Castro among real historical characters, and beautiful women and jazz pianists among the fictional characters. It is a splendid novel, a novel with a great jazz soundtrack underneath the sprawl of characters and ideas. Kennedy is such a pro (so far he’s won a Pulitzer and a MacArthur) that he is like a seasoned performer up on stage. He makes you, the audience, the reader, feel relaxed and able to listen, because you know you are in the hands of an expert and he will not let the balls drop or embarrass himself — or embarrass you.

Far, far from the prizewinners and the pros of prose are the sign-makers of Zucotti Park. Who knows what jobs, if any, they have in “real” life or whether or not they’ve won any prizes ever. It doesn’t matter. They find some cardboard, some markers or paints, and they choose some words, their own or someone else’s. Maybe they find the words they want at the makeshift library, which is collecting an archive of used signs for posterity. Maybe they find them in a book. Some are funny, some profane, some simple, some full of numbers, some poetic and some truly tragic. They are large. They contain multitudes. Walt Whitman would be proud.

Long live the people’s poetry!

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

10/06/11 2:25pm

If numbers and statistics could be made to sing alleluias, then perhaps we could hear the good news trilling out of two new books by distinguished academics, Joshua S. Goldstein’s ‘Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide’ and Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.’

Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever. Apparently just the opposite is true: Violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in the existence of our species. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, assassinations, pogroms, child abuse, gruesome punishments, deadly feuds and genocide were ordinary features of life. Not to mention popular amusements like gladiatorial contests, bear-baiting, cat-burning, witch-drowning and lynching.

Now, of course, we can see coverage of the violence that still exists, in full color, with sound. Television, the Internet, radio and print media tell us all the time about the horrors of war, and they should. It may be that our greater knowledge, plus our widening circle of empathy for the victims of violence, is part of what is making it decrease. But the media stories rarely highlight the numerical disparity between, say, the 300,000 American soldiers killed during World War II, the 50,000 during Vietnam and the approximately 6,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan. Professor Goldstein notes that in 2010 more Americans died by falling out of bed than were killed in armed conflict — some 600 American soldiers.

There is often a tendency among the chattering classes to agree with the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes that “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and that probably everything is going to go straight to hell in a hand basket. But what if it isn’t? What if things — and people — are actually getting better?

Professor Pinker cites some interesting statistics that question our romantic notions about the peaceful lives of our prehistoric tribal forebears. Studies documenting present-day hunter-gatherer tribes suggest that the chance of a prehistoric man’s being killed violently by another man ranged from 15 percent to 60 percent, whereas now in several Western countries the chance of being killed is between zero and one percent.

It is hard to believe good news when we are so programmed for pessimism, but the information is out there, to be read, digested, considered, discussed. If you have no time to read either book, you could go to YouTube and search for Goldstein, Peace is Increasing (youtube.com/watch?v=NipRlQ7uuJw) and watch a very short piece or watch a longer TED talk by Steven Pinker on the myth of violence (ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html). Both these men are looking at the big picture with all the tools that academia can muster: brains, rationality, numbers, eloquence and facts, and they share some really good reasons for hope.

Meanwhile, back at the fiction ranch, I have been reading ‘Consequences’ by Penelope Lively. Interestingly enough, the story hinges on the violent death in World War II of a young man, and the consequences of his life and death on subsequent generations. Penelope Lively is an English writer not as well known here as she should be. She is quite a wonderful woman of letters. She has written for children as well as adults, writes reviews and essays as well as memoirs and novels and won the Man Booker Prize in 1987 for ‘Moon Tiger,’ a novel about an old woman dying that weaves an exquisite mesh of memories, flashbacks and shifting voices, in a riveting story of loss and desire.

In “Consequences” we get to know three generations of women in their contexts — the young war bride in reckless love, her daughter growing up unconventionally and coming of age in ‘60s London and then that daughter’s daughter and her more circumscribed choices. All these women are vibrant and three-dimensional in their thoughts and relationships, and the various milieus so beautifully described come vibrantly to life.

I particularly love the passage where Molly, the ’60s girl, falls into a job at a library: “It sometimes seemed to Molly that the library was a place of silent discord and anarchy, its superficial tranquility concealing a babel of assertion and dispute. Fiction is one strident lie — or rather, many competing lies; history is a long narrative of argument and reassessment; travel shouts of self-promotion; biography is pushing a product … That is the function of books; they offer a point of view, they offer many conflicting points of view, they provoke thought, they provoke irritation and admiration and speculation.” She goes on but then manages to get herself fired from the library because she wants it not only to buy “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” but also to arrange a lecture about book censorship.

Poor Molly. She was before her time in terms of librarianship. If she were real, and here now, she could help us in our annual celebration of Banned Books Week, when libraries highlight all the books we have on our shelves despite the continual pressure from various quarters to remove them. Probably the children’s book ‘And Tango Makes Three’ will again top the American Library Association’s list as the most challenged book, as it has every year since its publication in 2006. Even now that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been rescinded and same-sex marriage is legal in New York State, there are those who feel this true story of two male chinstrap penguins in Central Park Zoo who successfully form a pair bond, hatch a donated egg and raise the baby is a dangerous story for young minds. But the book was published and has many champions and many readers­ — so the good news continues to ring out from the land of books.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

08/26/11 11:49am

Men. Women. Power. Money. Sex. Truth. These are the final winding down days of the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the alleged rape of an African hotel maid, and I keep wondering what Stieg Larsson, the journalist, would have had to say. Stieg Larsson was the author of the Millenium Trilogy — “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” — published posthumously to huge success after his death at age 50. While he was alive, he wasn’t known as a novelist. He was a crusading left-wing, feminist, anti-racist journalist who published magazine articles and books that put him under death threats from Swedish Neo-Nazi groups. He had spent a year in Africa training female guerrillas how to use rocket launchers. He had strong feelings about sexual violence toward women. He might have had something interesting to say about the Strauss-Kahn story.

Now that he’s dead and can’t say anything at all, there are two new books out about him: “Stieg Larsson, Our Days in Stockholm: A Memoir of a Friendship” by Kurdo Baksi and “ ‘There Are Things I Want You to Know’ About Stieg Larsson and Me” by Eva Gabrielsson, his life companion of 32 years. It is interesting how slippery word portraits are when they try to describe a person. Photographs taken by different people, in different lighting, at different ages, all are somehow believable as describing the same person. Written accounts by best friends, colleagues, girlfriends, seem to be better at describing the writer of the account than the subject.

I feel I know quite a lot about Kurdo Baksi and Eva Gabrielsson, who seem like perfectly decent people, although neither is a particularly gifted writer or original thinker. Neither seems to be writing a book that they are internally compelled to write. They have written books that will sell because the subject is of interest, and they have written books that champion their own sides of the story.

Eva’s is more compelling because she was Stieg’s lover for most of their lives, although you really don’t get much of an understanding of how their domestic and romantic life functioned on a day-to-day basis. He wrote her a love letter when he was 22 and returning from a near-death experience in Africa. She says he usually cooked dinner for her. Kurdo says his friend couldn’t cook at all. Kurdo says Stieg suffered from terrible insomnia and hardly slept. Which would explain how he managed to hold down a full-time job for money, work at least an equivalent of full time doing his own investigative reporting, editing and publishing, while reading voraciously both science fiction and murder mysteries, and last but not least, actually writing three, four, maybe five long novels.

Eva would have us believe that they slept together, although she really doesn’t give us any sense of the physical intimacy between them. She’s Swedish and shy and I’m not asking for prurient details, but I am curious. There is plenty of sex in his novels, of all sorts, described with great accuracy. If he was committed to Eva since they met at 18, were they each other’s only sexual partners? It seems highly unlikely, but there is no conflicting or corroborating information in either of these nonfiction books.

One story that both tell is that Stieg related a terrible event that happened when he was 15 years old. He was close by when three of his friends raped a girl they all knew, and he did nothing to stop it. A few days later he went to the girl and apologized for his inaction, but she would not forgive him and said he was just like the others. It’s a curious story, one that he tells about himself, one that “explains” both his political writing and his fiction. When will some investigative reporter go up to northern Sweden and try to find the people involved, or some other witnesses? Is this a true story or a story that a novelist might tell a few people to illuminate some deep truth about himself but that a journalist who respected truth would never write down or publish? In the book about honor killings that he co-wrote with Cecilia Englund, he says, “The cultural and anthropological models used to explain these tragedies speak to the form of oppression involved but do not explain it. And so in India, women are set on fire: they are murdered in the name of honor in Sicily: they are beaten up on Saturday night in Sweden … Yet culture does not explain why women all over the world are murdered, mutilated, mistreated by men.”

This was a problem he set out to understand and solve in different ways, and the sad thing is that he had only completely finished three of the planned 10 books of the series, whose working title was “The Men Who Hate Women,” when he died. If only he were still around and working, we would have more complicated books, whether mysteries like “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” police procedurals like “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” political thrillers like “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” or nonfiction exposés about honor killings or hate crimes. He would be even closer to being the grown-up embodiment of both his childhood literary heroes, Pippi Longstocking and Kalle Blomkvist, characters invented by Astrid Lindgren and beloved by children all over the world, just as his own characters Lizbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are admired and beloved by adult readers all over the world for their courage against injustice.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.