Charles Trueheart

Saturday, 30 June 2012 07:00

A Summer Rubik’s Cube

This summer the American Library will be rectifying a longstanding peculiarity in the way its book collections are physically arranged.

rubix-cubeFor years, even decades, the Library’s biography, mystery, art, and fiction collections each have been divided – partly on the mezzanine and partly on the ground floor, under no useful organizing principle.

This summer’s collection consolidation will gather all of our fiction, biography, and art titles on the ground floor, and all of our mysteries on the mezzanine. English-language literature criticism and much of the social sciences will also migrate to the mezzanine. Present basement collections will be virtually unchanged, and travel and cookbooks will remain where they are.

Executing this dramatic shift of tens of thousands of books -- a librarian’s Rubik’s cube -- will require the use of a portion of the reading room as a work space during the summer months. Books temporarily unavailable in open stacks can be retrieved by staff and volunteers.

We apologize for the temporary inconvenience, and wish you a safe and pleasant summer.

Charles Trueheart

Wednesday, 23 February 2011 14:32

Not just a thriller writer


Scott Turow, who will be the Library’s featured gala dinner speaker on May 24, is known for writing legal-themed thrillers. But he writes often and insightfully about much else. Just in the past week, Turow appeared on the op-edit page of the New York Times to raise alarm about copyright infringement and internet piracy (“Would the Bard have Survived the Web?”) and a few days later in the New York Times Magazine, profiling Rahm Emanuel, "The One-Man Political Machine," who has just been elected mayor of Turow’s native Chicago.

Turow, who practices law while writing bestselling books, was elected president of the Authors Guild last year (succeeding Roy Blount Jr.), and comments often on the future of the book and of reading – for example, in an Authors Guild posting about e-books and e-readers and whether he is “for them or against them.”

Meanwhile, save the date and save your places for the 2011 gala….
Thursday, 11 November 2010 14:36

A life in books


[caption id="attachment_566" align="aligncenter" width="290" caption="photo credit: Pieter van Hattem"]photo credit: Pieter van Hattem[/caption]

If you’re interested in what a great book editor sounds like and thinks about in 2010, you could not do better than reading this long interview with Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar Straus Giroux and the leading editor of his generation. For thoughtfulness, realism, experience, humor, love of craft, and enthusiasm – and publishing success-- he has few equals, and his interviewer, Jofie-Ferrari Adler for Poets & Writers, brings it all out over five screens.
Friday, 03 September 2010 15:30

What I read on my summer vacation

The Library director’s peculiar (and occasionally regretted) choice of  reading matter – and an invitation to share what you are reading.

Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens. A memorable, outrageous, literate, hilarious self-accounting by one of the great public intellectuals of our time. Hitchens, who became more broadly famous with his “God is Not Great” (2007), is at his tenderest in his portraits of his parents and his dear friend Martin Amis (and other cool pals) and at his most tendentious in his explanation for a political trajectory that began as a far-left provocateur and wound up, so far, as an Iraq war apologist.

The War Lovers by Evan Thomas. The distinguished Newsweek editor and writer is a born storyteller,  bringing murky historical events to life through deft sketches of singular American personalities – in this case Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Randolph Hearst, and William James as they locked horns along the agonizing but inexorable march to a silly war against the Spanish in the last years of the 19th century. There are places where it all sounds eerily 21st century.

Edith Wharton: A Biography by Hermione Lee. If you think you know everything you need to know about Edith Wharton from The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome, I certainly didn’t. Hermione Lee, a graceful and thorough biographer, takes you into the intimate setting of the great author’s stressful and sad, but also successful and satisfying life (1862-1937) in New York, Newport, and France. The portraits of her dumb marriage to a stuffpot and her agonizing midlife affair with the cad Morton Fullerton are quite absorbing. Along the way Lee covers every book and short story – perhaps to a fault – but certainly made the case for reading The Custom of the Country, her lately neglected masterpiece. Edith Wharton was an early trustee of this Library, although in 900-plus pages Lee does not mention it. Hmph.

The Same River Twice by Ted Mooney. This fourth turn by the acute and sophisticated Mooney is set mostly in Paris, and reviews have hailed it as a perfect intersection of mystery novel and literary novel. Mooney’s characters – filmmakers, art dealers, contraband artists, smugglers, hangers-on – are wrapped up in a caper way too complicated to summarize, or at times understand; what’s admirable are the author’s snapshots of Paris and this artsy demimonde caught up in a menacing world not their own. Mooney was an editor at Art in America for decades and knows the scene.

Shadows Lengthen by Clara Longworth de Chambrun. The Library has this book, but I wanted my own copy  and bought it from a used bookseller on line. The author is for us an institutional heroine, as it was she who stepped in to run the American Library in Paris during the Occupation, and frankly rescued it through her connections to Pierre Laval, the Vichy prime minister; Laval’s daughter was married to her son. Charles Glass, in his recent Americans in Paris, tells her story and the Library’s succinctly. But this memoir is a chance to hear the Comtesse – born in Cincinnati into a prominent American political family, and married into an equally illustrious French one (La Fayette’s) – render her own account of daily life on the eve of war and in the intricate balance of resistance and collaboration. Quite apart from her good works, Chambrun was a Shakespeare scholar in her own right; she writes with antique grace and fearlessness about difficult and controversial times.

Endpoint by John Updike. This last volume of the great American author’s poems include those published in the New Yorker just after his death last year. They mark his birthdays as he grows old, then his days of dying, always with that sweet-and-dour humanity, that wry cognizance of the gods. Here’s a short one:

Nature is never bored, and we whose lives

Are linearly pinned to these aloof,

Self-0fascinated cycles can’t complain,

Though aches and pains and even dreams a-crawl

With wood-lice of decay give pause to praise.

Birthday, death day – what day is not both?

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. The internet has changed the way we access and transmit information and media, and that revolution is only beginning. Nicholas Carr is among those who believes that it is also changing – for the worse, by and large – the way we think. We are losing our ability to reflect, to meditate, to read or write a narrative. “The more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted --- to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention,” he writes. “Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering.” And I thought it was just me. Carr offers some evidence for his anecdotally-resonant thesis but understands he is only speculating. The Shallows (great title) book is useful less as a screed (a more-in-sorrow screed) than as a primer of everything worrisome about this revolution. To continue to read into this subject, I’ve just bought Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books. Like Carr, Darnton (historian of France, now librarian of Harvard) is another  thoughtful observer of this topic, so important to librarians and those who use libraries.

Kissinger 1973: The Crucial Year by Alistair Horne. Horne has many admirers, including this one, for his magisterial works of history – his lives of Napoleon, his books on World War II and France’s war in Algeria, and more recently The Seven Ages of Paris. This work on Henry Kissinger’s most challenging year is more breezily written and can be captivating in places – notably the account of the most serious US-Soviet confrontation since 1962 over the Yom Kippur War. The national security adviser and secretary of state that year had to manage a historic state visit to Beijing, two Soviet summits, angry European leaders, the coup in Chile, war in the Middle East, and the oil crash – all while working for, and increasingly subbing for, the debilitated president of the United States as he went under.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Everyone tells me this Booker Prize winner is today’s essential reading. Only got through 100 pages before surrendering. It defied my ability to concentrate (see The Shallows above). I will surely try again another day.

H is for Homicide by Sue Grafton. I’m not a big mystery reader, and this was my first Grafton. Excellent character portrayals, nice tone and style, engaging scrappy detective in Kinsey Millhone, but a truly ridiculous plot. Invraisemblable. Found a tattered 1930s Maigret novella in a 1950s edition lying around the summer rental, can’t remember the name. Interesting period piece. No frills. Also found and read (25 pages of) my first and last by the fabulously successful book-writing factory branded James Patterson: Swimsuit. Idiotic. OK, what should I be reading?

The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. I just came from reading Robb’s exquisite Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris to this, his previous book on the French that existed in chaotic but persistent fashion long before Napoleon took the credit for creating the unified state. France was once upon a time more profonde than you can possibly imagine. On bicycle and in the historical record – the deep record, not secondary sources – Robb (a biographer of Hugo, Balzac, Merimée, and Baudelaire) tells us of ordinary life, nasty and brutish, in a countryside that spoke hundreds of languages, and how all the pieces were drawn together fitfully into something called France. Robb writes like a dream, but without once leaving sight of fact, remarkable fact.

What would you like to recommend? Please post!

Charles Trueheart

Monday, 21 June 2010 12:55

Mr. Darcy, you smell so good

"The pheromone that attracts female mice to the odour mrdarcyof a particular male has been identified. Named 'darcin' by researchers writing in the open access journal BMC Biology (after Darcy, the attractive hero in Jane Austen's novel "Pride and Prejudice"), this unusual protein in a male's urine attracts females and is responsible for learned preference for specific males." Read more about this breakthrough in Science Daily.
Sunday, 20 June 2010 12:43


The weird stationery of Mussolini, Ian Fleming, Charles Atlas, Dr. Seuss, Marlene Dietrich, and more ... all collected by Letterheady.  According to the rubric, "Letterheady is an online homage to offline correspondence; specifically letters. However, here at Letterheady we don't care about the letter's content. Just its design."
Saturday, 19 June 2010 12:41

Shelf talk

One of the most admirable and inventive and current library blogs around comes from the Seattle Public Library. Its Shelf Talk blog is a trove of ideas and informaiton that keeps coming and sets an example for library blogs everywhere. Recent trolling by our own tireless remote researcher, Andrea Delumeau, turned up some excellent summer reading tips for tweens, a nice item on Shakespeare authenticity questions, news of a new service for downloading audio books onto MP3 players at the Seattle Public Library (we'll work on it), and a piece on book titles that overreach. Check the links above or go to the main Shelf Talk site.

Andrea Delumeau, by the way, bookmarks everything she finds here and Browser can barely keep up with it. Have a look.
Saturday, 12 June 2010 23:53

Martin Gardner, R. I. P.

A few weeks ago the world lost one of its most original and unusual intellects, Martin Gardner, polymath and prankster and puzzler, alt the "Mathematical Games” columnist of Scientific American for 25 years, the annotator of “Alice in Wonderland,” the debunker of superstitions masquerading as science, and a demigod to many.

Gardner was beloved of Auden and Nabokov, Stephen Jay Gould and Douglas Hofstadter. The latter mathematician, writing in homage in Scientific American, said his early discovery of Gardner “was probably the first time I had realized that systematic and critical thinking could extend beyond such precise domains as math and physics, and could demolish ideas in far hazier fields with great power. It was also the first time I had realized how very many crazy belief systems there are out there in the world, and how important it is to recognize this fact and to combat them.”

The New York Times has an exceptionally lovely obituary of Gardner, by Douglas Martin, in which this Gardner stumper is posed, with an unexpectedly nonmathematical solution:  What is special about the number 8,549,176,320?
Sunday, 06 June 2010 17:37

The lost art of concentration

The time we spend on the internet is diminishing our power to concentrate, to pay attention. Nicholas Carr believes our contemporary on-line life threatens “a form of human regress,” a permanent loss of the human capacity for contemplation. “It follows us even when we turn off our computers,” he says.

Carr wrote it down the first time in The Atlantic (“Is Google Making us Stupid?”) and has expanded his study into a book with a wonderful title (“The Shallows”) and he talks about it in an interview with Robert Siegel on NPR – where you can get a link to read some of the book. Or you can dig deeper with Carr on his blog, Rough Type.

It's hard to see why the cause of learning and thinking about the information revolution – or anything else -- is hindered by the ability to read or listen or respond to all that while sitting in one place. Nonetheless, it’s self-evident that a fundamental shift is taking place, and just as self-evident that we are not in a great place to understand it. Siegel has the courage to ask him, several times, whether the phenomenon may represent not regression but rather progression into a higher state of human thought. It’s possible.

In any case, the book is on order for the Library.
Thursday, 10 June 2010 17:28

Boring, and skewering

For some reason Browser can’t get enough of these withering remarks made by one author about another: Gore Vidal on John Updike: “Just another boring little middle-class boy hustling his way to the top if he can do it.”

D. H. Lawrence on Herman Melville: "Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste.” James Dickey on Robert Frost: “A sententious, holding-forth old bore.” Henry James on Edgar Allan Poe: “An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.”

Martin Amis on Cervantes: “an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative.” Anatole France on Emile Zola: “One of those unhappy beings of whom one can say that it would be better had he never been born.”

If you can’t get enough either, here’s 25 good ones and then 25 more good ones.
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