Books All Georgians Should Read

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Archive for October, 2010

Saluting Reference Librarians

Friday, October 29th, 2010

I love reference libarians. There is no group of people on this planet who seem to know more about more things than they do. They know where the bodies are buried. Their life’s work is to make secret things un-secret. If anyone discovers the key to the universe, it will probably be a reference librarian. Or at least they’ll tell you who did find it and how.

As a former journalist always in need of arcane facts to finish a story, I was constantly turning to my newspaper’s reference librarian with a sheepish look and a plea: “How many votes did Mr. X get in the 1938 election?” Or, “Do you know how the Tiffany diamond got its name?” My friend Lee never took more than a minute to get back to me with the answer. Invariably it was the right answer. No matter how peculiar my request, Lee seemed to take it as his personal challenge, and no matter how long it might take or how many searches it required, he would always get to me with that right answer. 

At the Decatur Library, where I’m fortunate enough to work, there are some amazing reference librarians. And when I was researching a book on Scotland a couple of years ago, they were indispensable time and again.  Need a long out-of-print Edinburgh book title? No problem. Need to find how many Scottish ministers have been named Hamish? Got it. Want to know where the best pubs in Glascow are? Well, that might take a little time.

I couldn’t have finished the book without the help of reference librarians, here and in Scotland, all of them truly people with limitless knowledge at the fingertips. Almost every author who’s gone into a library would agree, I know. Further, I’ve never found a reference librarian who took offense at requests. To the contrary, in fact, they love giving out accurate, helpful, useful information. How can you not love folks like that?   

Writers who come to speak at this library gratefully acknowledge the help they’ve gotten from many places. Dr. Stanly Godbold was here the other day, and after spending nearly 20 years researching a biography of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, mostly at the Carter Library, he couldn’t say enough about the help he received. Dr. Jim Cobb, the UGA history who has spent years preparing his new history of the South since 1945 (he’ll be at the Decatur Library to talk about it Monday, November 15), has always paid tribute to the reference librarians he’s utilized all over the country,

So in appreciation, I’ve officially declared the month of November to be  “Reference Librarian Month.” It’s up to you to do your part — take a librarian to lunch. Buy one a gift. Or, best of all, ask one of them a question. I think getting you an answer is what makes them happiest.

Tough Reads

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Have you ever struggled through a book you knew you “should” read but just couldn’t seem to finish? Or, maybe you couldn’t even get that far; maybe you came to a skidding halt somewhere in the book’s 50 pages? I have almost a bookshelf full of volumes that have tripped me up over the decades. Their bookmarks — located on page 26 in one, and page 44 in another — glare at me, nagging reminders of failure.

Sometimes, I’ve conquered these literary demons. William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” was one of them for many years until I sat down, determined, and got through it with the help of a reader’s guide and a friend who taught literature. Now, I’m glad I persevered; it was well worth it.

Not so for “Ulysses.” For years I would start out my voyage of discovery on the James Joyce masterpiece (someone else’s opinion, by the way), invariably finding myself running aground before page 100. Eventually, I did get through it, armed with a reader’s guide at least as thick as “Ulysses,” and wondering why I ever went to so much trouble. I still wonder why.

And then there’s “The Wings of the Dove” by Henry James, a novel that still defeats me regularly. For a time I punished myself, never starting on it before bedtime, and always yawning myself to sleep amid the interminable meanderings of James’s prose. Nothing is simple here. When one character announces her intention to go to London, the following sentence occurs: “It was unexpected, corresponding with no view positively taken at their departure; when England had appeared, on the contrary, rather relegated and postponed — seen for the moment, as who should say, at the end of an avenue of preparations and introductions.” Couldn’t someone just have said, “Good”? James called his novel “an appetizing dessert;”  maybe I need to try some bicarb before my next attempt to resolve its mysteries.  

I yield to all the admirers of Henry James — and I much enjoy many of his books, to tell the truth — with my apologies. But I suspect we’ve all got a “Wings of the Dove” in our lives, just waiting for the right moment. I’d love to know what it is and how you’ve struggled to get through it. After all, misery loves company.

Cheering Pat Conroy

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Just about everyone loves Pat Conroy. I can’t think of an author in America who is more consistently in demand, and only a handful can rival the requests for his presence all over the country. He would never say this of himself, but I think he might sometimes feel something like the late celebrated conductor Herbert von Karajan reputedly did. Karajan — who was the highly honored conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna State Opera and who had two or three other very high paid musical gigs all over the world at the same time — was alleged to have climbed into a cab in Paris and was asked by the driver, “Where to?” Karajan replied, “Everywhere. I’m wanted everywhere.”

No, I really don’t think Pat has an ego anywhere approaching that. But I know well that that he fields hundreds of requests for talks every year, and he can only accept a few of them. He needs time to write, to be with his family, and to give his health some attention. But every author — even Pat Conroy — has had those times in their lives when not everyone was clamoring for them. I remember one of those.

It was a long time ago, back in the early 1970s, when Pat was only a few years out of The Citadel and had just written a book about his experiences teaching kids on Daufuskie, a tiny, remote island off the South Carolina coast. The book was “The Water is Wide,” which would later become a movie titled “Conrack.” But that was in the future, and in this particular year, Pat came to Columbia, where I was working as a newspaper reporter covering the arts, for a book signing in a department store. I met him for the first time then, and we chatted for a while as Pat waited for people to come get a copy of his book and get it signed.

It quickly became evident that the crowds weren’t coming. In fact, no one came. So there he sat. Pat Conroy, and no one wanting his book. Flash forward to today and you may have trouble imagining such a scene, with good reasons. I can also recall another book signing for Pat in Columbia, this one for “Beach Music” at a bookstore more than 20 years later, when Pat had at least 2,000 people waiting in line for nearly 8 hours to meet him. Pat spoke to each person for eight hours (and somehow never used the bathroom during that time, a feat almost as amazing as his signing prowess).

Here’s what really struck me, as I think back on those two occasions. Pat Conroy couldn’t have been more generous, nicer or good-spirited at both of those two very different events. Whether chatting with me, the sole person who showed up, or embracing the thousands who came to see him, Pat Conroy was a champ. He gave of himself freely to everyone, no matter the circumstances. I’ve always liked him, and I’ve always admired him, and never more than on those two occasions.