Q: Great job, Nancy, emceeing the Carnegie Medals program at the recent ALA annual meeting in Anaheim. Now that it is all over, I wonder if you can tell us, what was it like to jury this award; how did you do it, and what are your hopes and dreams for this new book prize? And are there any memorable moments from ALA you’d like to share?
A: Well, first off, I thought this year’s ALA annual conference was just great—lots of programs for librarians working with adults, and lots of good ARCs of adult titles. In addition to taking part in the Carnegie Medals program (which was the highlight of the conference for me), there were several other memorable moments. One of those was hearing Mike Lawson, author of seven thrillers featuring Joe DeMarco, a “fixer” for the not entirely scrupulous Speaker of the House of Representatives, at a Grove/Atlantic dinner. DeMarco talked about how he got the idea for his most recent novel, House Blood, which concerns big pharma, from an article in Vanity Fair. Also at the dinner, G. Willow Wilson described the plot of her new novel, Alif the Unseen, in which a computer hacker in an unnamed Middle Eastern country goes on the run from security forces with a jinn or two. It’s these sorts of examples I often use when I’m talking about books with potential readers. I think readers find hearing a bit of backstory or the author’s own description of his or her book intriguing.
On to the Carnegies. I was honored to be asked not only to chair the selection committee for the first Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction, but also to emcee the awards ceremony. As I said in my opening remarks that evening, for those of us in the library and publishing worlds who work with adult literature, this award has been a long time coming. Quite honestly, I believe that we’ve all been a little envious of the success of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, as well as the Printz and Odyssey awards, and we wished for something on that scale honoring adult books. I’m delighted that we’re finally on our way.
I think all seven judges—three librarians and three Booklist editors, plus me—found selecting the first Carnegie Medalists to be both daunting and thrilling. Our committee work was almost entirely virtual—we did all our discussion and eventual voting over the phone and via e-mail. But this was a committee that was united in one goal: to select what we believe to be the finest work of fiction and the finest work of nonfiction published in 2011.
It was a joy to be part of this amazing group of readers, and I’d like to acknowledge them here: Brad Hooper, Danise Hoover, Ike Pulver, Nonny Schlotzhauer, Donna Seaman, and Rebecca Vnuk. We had many great discussions about what it means to be a “Carnegie-worthy” book, and I’m already anticipating some excellent conversations as we make our way through the fiction and nonfiction published in 2012. I know that I already have some favorites in mind.
My fondest hope for the awards is that readers will find the Carnegies, both the winners and the finalists, to be a reliable guide to good reading. And I’d like to see the awards grow over the years to have the importance and influence of the other three major awards: the Pulitzers, the National Book Critics Circle, and the National Book Awards.
Q: While we’re breaking down ALA, e-books were once again a hot topic. A few columns ago, you asked for data about library borrowing and its effect on book-buying. Since then, we’ve had readers point us back to the “LJ Patron Profiles” survey, which found a very strong, positive link between library users and book buyers, and in Anaheim came the latest Pew report, which also found that library users are book buyers. What are your impressions of those reports? And, while we’re at it, Penguin introduced a pilot with New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries that features new titles being “windowed” for six months, and books expiring every year. Any impressions of that program?
A: Both the “LJ Patron Profiles” survey (and the wonderful Barbara Genco’s powerful presentation summarizing those results) at the O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing conference in February this year, as well as the Pew report, have certainly convinced me that public library patrons buy books, lots of them. I am, however, cynical enough to wonder who in the publishing community is reading these studies, and for those that are reading them, nibbling away at the back of my mind is that devilish statement about lies, damn lies, and statistics.
I’m glad that Penguin is piloting its e-book project with NYPL and the Brooklyn Public Library—even given that its frontlist e-books won’t be available to library patrons for six months after their pub date. It’s a small step forward. But at the same time—and I feel as though I’m saying this over and over when it comes to these e-book lending policies—I believe the terms of the program show an almost total lack of understanding of libraries and their users. For example, I believe that if Penguin made its frontlist available immediately to library cardholders, the publisher would find that, first, the library would have so long a holds queue that it would order more copies. And second, so many readers wouldn’t want to wait until they reach the top of the queue, they would purchase the title themselves. And that seems to old, naïve me to be a win-win for Penguin.
Finally, in some ways I regret all the energy that’s going into these endless discussions about e-books, because I believe it is deflecting attention from some important issues that libraries are facing. But let’s talk about that in another column.
Books from the Big Sky State
There is a song by a Montana singer named Connie Kaldor that I love called “Sky with Nothing to Get in the Way.” I love it because hearing it always reminds me of how fond I am of nearly everything literary that has to do with Montana. I suspect that I was supposed to be born in Montana, but something went badly awry and I ended up in Detroit. I read Montana fiction and nonfiction rather obsessively, and here are some of my favorites.
One Sweet Quarrel, by Deirdre McNamer
The Girls from the Five Great Valleys, by Elizabeth Savage (which, I’m happy to say, we’ll republish in my Book Lust Rediscovery series in 2013)
The Corner of Rife and Pacific, by Thomas Savage
Perma Red, by Debra Magpie Earling
The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley
The Edge of the Crazies, by Jamie Harrison
Bad Land: An American Romance, by Jonathan Raban
Homestead, by Annick Smith
And two great collections:
Writing Montana: Literature Under the Big Sky, edited by Rick Newby
Suzanne Hunger The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology, edited by William Kittredge and Annick Smith
Nancy Pearl, a veteran Seattle librarian, is a regular commentator about books on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.