West Virginia Book Festival

“The Case for Books”, both old and new

A lifelong love of books led me to pick “The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future,” Robert Darnton’s book of essays, off the shelf of the Kanawha County Public Library downtown .The titled intrigued me, as my wife and I are pulling up stakes and moving to a place with less space for books. Each time I have to decide on the disposal of a book is something like committing a great offense. If I could coin a word, it would be “bibliocide.” Even the act of giving a treasured volume to a friend has its difficulties. I ask: “Will he or she love this volume as I have loved it”?

Over the years, I have shared my once large-ish library with friends, libraries and schools. This final disposal has been hard, since it deals with a core of books which I deemed indispensable to my life.  Actually, I have done well, all things considered.

I would like to commend Darnton, the director of the Harvard University Library, for his willingness to see the oncoming invasion of electronic books as a reality, and not to be feared. I am sure that he understands that the existence of the traditional library is not in mortal danger, but will be the subject of changes, as large collections of volumes will be reduced to digits and will float somewhere in cyberspace.

The traditional book does have a future. I will continue to haul them off the new bookshelves for the rest of my life. I hope that my granddaughter, who is thoroughly plugged in to the handheld texting devices, will come, some day, to love the feel of the bound book.

The casual reader, attempting to understand the revolutionary nature of such devices as Amazon’s e-book reader Kindle, will enjoy the essay titled “A Paean to Writing.” Darnton lays out the glories of books, and the misguided attempts, even by librarians, to discard them in favor of digital storage devices. In proclaiming the wonder of printed and bound books, however, he does not condemn the dispensation of millions of words by such companies as Google. In Darnton’s own words:

“This is a book about books, an unashamed apology for the printed word, past, present and future.  Far from deploring electronic modes of communication, I want to explore the possibilities of aligning them with the power that Johannes Gutenberg unleashed more than five centuries ago.”

In another essay, “The Mysteries of Reading”, Darnton looks at commonplace books — personal collections of favorite quotations from books that have been read, both ones that ennoble and  those that annoy.  Great ones of the past, like Thomas Jefferson, kept such collections. I wish now and then that I had done the same, nipping beautiful buds as if from rose bushes.

In keeping such personal books, the reader becomes author. Darnton concludes:

“All the keepers of commonplace books . . . read their way through life, picking up fragments of experience and fitting them into patterns.”

Thus, the reader becomes editor.

I love books, and while I use some electronic means of writing and reading, I find the notion of a world in which a beloved book (or even a magazine) can be replaced with a digital volume strange, and perhaps frightening. How shall I caress the spine? How shall I wonder at the lovely binding? Will I be able to see the thumb marks of those who have read this very same book?  A mark made by a dropped cigarette ash or a spilled cup of coffee can hardly be shared in a sterile electronic environment. When readers are converted to e-books, what may we take into our beds for an early morning treat?

That being said, to know that I can access whole libraries from my inexpensive computer intrigues me.  I have already read one book on my screen, and know that I have also held this very book in my hands at one time.

This book is recommended for both electronic media supporters and print enthusiasts.  All librarians should read it.

Now, I have to return Darnton’s work to the library, so another reader can be in touch with a great scholar.

Bram Stoker Award winner

I somehow missed this when it came out, but Gazette reporter and occasional blog contributor Bill Lynch wrote a story a few weeks ago about Logan County writer Michael Collins, who writer under the pen name Michael Knost. Collins recently won a Bram Stoker Award, given each year by the Horror Writers Association for “superior achievement in horror writing.”

Collins” achievement wasn’t a story of his own; instead, he compiled the “Writer’s Workshop of Horror” under his pen name, Michael Knost. His book beat out a nonfiction collection by Stephen King, so there’s that. (Just eight more awards to go, and they’ll be tied. Stephen King at the Horror Writers Association awards must be like Meryl Streep at the Oscars; when he doesn’t win, it’s news.)

Collins also was a speaker at last year’s West Virginia Book Festival.

Meredith Sue Willis, who teaches novel writing at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, will present a workshop at the West Virginia Book Festival, to be held Oct. 16 and 17 at the Charleston Civic Center. Willis’ workshop, based upon her book “Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel,” is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16.

Willis was raised in Shinnston and now lives in New Jersey. Her father’s family came to West Virginia following jobs with Consolidation Coal. Her mother’s father was a witness to the Monongah mine disaster of 1907.

Willis’ novels and short fiction have been published by presses including Scribners’, HarperCollins, West Virginia University Press, Ohio University Press, Mercury House and others. She has three books coming out in 2010: “Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel,” “Out of the Mountains” and “Re-Visions: Stories from Stories.”

In addition to Willis, the West Virginia Book Festival line-up includes: New York Times best selling author Nicholas Sparks; Civil War historian James Robertson; children’s author Carmen Deedy; award-winning novelist and West Virginia native Jayne Anne Phillips; and E. Lockhart, author of books for teens.

The West Virginia Book Festival is an annual, two-day event celebrating books and reading presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail.

Plenty of images from the time, such as this print of a Civil War balloon, help to make “Mr. Lincoln’s High-Tech War” a book that enables young people to discover knowledge of history on their own.

From my earliest discoveries about American Civil War history, I have been fascinated by the overlap of old and new technologies — new rifled gun barrels that spun bullets straighter and farther than the old West Point generals anticipated, armored ships, submarines, “high-speed” telegraph communications and mass troop and supply transport by rail, for example.

At the same time, Civil War soldiers were still facing each other in the kind of formations Napoleon used, and dying in the face of these more deadly weapons. Medical care had not advanced as far as gun technology, so soldiers died of disease or infection, if not directly from their wounds.

In “Mr. Lincoln’s High-Tech War,” Thomas B. Allen and his son Roger MacBride Allen expertly explain these contrasts for young readers, although grown readers will find plenty here to expand their own understanding.

The book tracks technological developments throughout the war and their effects on the fighting armies and navies. It starts with the years of scientific discovery leading up to Civil War and follows innovations as the war drags on to involve the total population.

As you might expect from a National Geographic book, it not only reads well, it looks great. Designers set aside from the main text relevant chronologies and brief backgrounds on specific topics, such as photography and habeas corpus. This makes the book easier to browse, particularly for young readers. Almost every page contains an image from the time that allows readers to “discover” historical knowledge on their own. For example, you can see cannon dents in the sides of the U.S.S. Monitor, bent railroad ties that had been wrapped around trees and the columns of the White House wrapped in black after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Thomas B. Allen has won a number of commendations for his earlier young adult non-fiction, including “George Washington, Spymaster,” and “Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent.” His son has written science fiction in the past. This is their first book together.

I found this book on the new shelf at the Kanawha County Public Library. It deserves a place in every elementary and middle school collection. It is exactly the type of book young, curious readers can browse again and again, picking up new details and understanding each time.  Though it is easy to follow, it is not dumbed down. It has a complete bibliography and list of works cited, a good index and a substantial page of online resources.

This year, West Virginia University Press instituted a new series titled “Regeneration: African American Literature and Culture.” “Hearts of Gold: A Novel,” written and self-published by J. McHenry Jones in Wheeling in 1896, is the first in the series.

This was not a novel set in the past; the Ohio-born Jones took a risk when he called attention to real problems facing black Americans in the post-Reconstruction period. The proliferation of Jim Crow laws, beatings and lynchings, a corrupt prison leasing system as cruel as slavery, sexual harassment, political and social injustices, discrimination in voting practices, lack of educational opportunities and poor health care were the order of the day.

Published barely 30 years after the Civil War, the four main characters (Jones refers to them as Afro-American) live in a northern location reminiscent of Ohio. The four are a comfortably fixed genteel group with expansive vocabularies and a love of their heritage and culture.

Their peers are physicians, activists, lodge members, ministers, journalists, stenographers, educators, and property owners. They come in all hues; some could pass for white (but chose not to do so), others are ginger-colored, some are ebony. Through lodge membership and group gatherings they are learning to organize and work together for racial justice.

The novel’s epigram, lines from Shakespeare’s Othello, set the stage for the story:

“Yet, by your gracious patience/ I will a round unvarnished tale

deliver; /Nothing extenuate or set down in malice.”

The “round unvarnished tale” has the elements of a Victorian melodrama: first love nearly thwarted, virtue rewarded, villain brought to justice.

Under the mantel of fiction, Jones’ characters discuss hot topics of the day such as the merits of living in the South or the North or Africa. They brainstorm problems and come up with approaches; the young journalist and the teacher learns to use the power of the press to influence public opinion and action. They commit to helping less fortunate members of their race receive an education, health care, and voting rights.

It may surprise readers to learn there was a well-educated Afro-American middle-class in the 1880s. Well versed in the Bible and the classics, especially Shakespeare, Jones pulled out all his vocabulary’s stops as he wrote; be prepared to learn some phrases from the 1800s and look up some words.

Jones did not receive accolades for his fiction while he was alive. Shortly after publishing the novel, he was appointed president of the West Virginia Colored Institute (now West Virginia State University) in Piney Grove (now Institute).

The WVU Press edition, edited by John Ernest and Eric Gardner, includes a 55-page introduction to Jones’ life, and concludes with six appendices covering his early career, family life, religious beliefs, lodge activities, political activism, and more. (There’s a video of Ernest discussing Jones and the book online at the WVU Press website.)

The novel is also online at the Ohio County Public Library, with notes by Jones scholar Ancella Radford Bickley.

Jones is also part of the first official literary map of West Virginia, at the West Virginia Folklife Center at Fairmont State University.

In Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, Cody Corliss reviewed the second effort from Huntington native Glenn Taylor: “The Marrowbone Marble Company.”

Taylor’s first novel, “The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart,” was a “bawdy chronicle” with “pitch-perfect storytelling,” Corliss says. It was also a  finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2009. But “Marrowbone” is a more serious story, he says, “firmly rooted in the West Virginia soil.” Even if it doesn’t quite measure up to Taylor’s debut, it’s a story that “will resonate with many readers, and particularly those who enjoy fine writing set in the Mountain State.”

Also, Taylor talks about second novels and the writing life here, at PublishingPerspectives.com.

Who done it … West Virginia’s John F. Suter

Sharyn McCrumb had this to say of the gifted John F. Suter:

“In a genre (mystery) with an increasing emphasis on the novel and an ever-shrinking market for short stories, John F Suter has remained a constant, a shining planet for four decades…”

Suter wasn’t a hidden gem in the world of detective fiction writers, but local people might not have known we had a celebrated writer in our midst. At first I thought he was just a great library patron, but then I got hooked on the stories he wrote and the tales he told of the world of mystery writers.

Suter began writing in the 1940s as a way to fill time on his lunches, while out on the island working for Union Carbide.  He started in radio writing for the show “Suspense.”  Suter then found big success writing short stories for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  He began winning awards with his first story, “A Break in the Film”.

Suter was also interested in the craft of mystery writing and took an active role in the development of the genre.  He  served as a judge in the annual Edgar Awards for mystery and the Crime Writers Association of Britain.  Suter also took time to mentor up and coming mystery writers like McCrumb.

In 1996, the same year that Suter died, the University of Charleston Press collected 19 of his best mysteries in the volume “Old Land, Dark Land, Strange Land.”  It is a marvelous mix of his Suter’s two most popular genres of crime fiction – his continuations of Melville Davisson Post’s Uncle Abner detective stories, and the “impossible crime” genre, where his puzzles baffled readers.

Terry McNemar, president of West Virginia Writers Inc., advises that the group will hold its 2010 Summer Writing Conference next month at the Cedar Lakes Conference Center in Ripley.

Among the subjects at the conference will be “humor writing, song writing, screenplay writing, poetry, memoirs, CSI stories, and children’s writing.” More than 30 writers with West Virginia connections will be part of the conference. Also, Saturday’s events will include a “pitch session,” which will bring writers together with editors and agents.

People who want to attend must register with West Virginia Writers for the conference, and with Cedar Lakes for lodging and meals. For more information about the conference, visit the West Virginia Writers website.

Graduation advice from a trusted source

    Graduation season is upon us (many colleges finished, most high schools yet to come), so it seems a fitting time to share this:

    I recently went to a friend’s wedding in Atlanta, and took the opportunity to visit a Dr. Seuss exhibit at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Center.

    The center has collected some of the earliest work of Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Among other things, he was an editorial cartoonist for the New York magazine PM, and railed against fascists in Europe and isolationists in America in the days leading to and early days of World War II. The exhibit is called “Dr. Seuss Goes to War … and More!” and it’s a pretty cool thing for both kids and adults.

    There was a kids’ program that included Dr. Seuss’ commencement address from 1977 at Lake Forest College, outside Chicago. He decided to make it the world’s shortest graduation speech, got it down to 1 minute, 14 seconds, and titled it “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers”:

My uncle ordered popovers

from the restaurant’s bill of fare.

And when they were served,

he regarded them with a penetrating stare . . .

Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom

as he sat there on that chair:

“To eat these things,” said my uncle,

“you must exercise great care.

You may swallow down what’s solid . . .

BUT … you must spit out the air!”

And … as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,

that’s darned good advice to follow.

Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.

And be careful what you swallow.

National Book Festival gets $5 million

That’s the National Book Festival. Settle down.

Philanthropist David Rubenstein gave the Library of Congress $5 million last week to continue the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. The festival, started in 2001 with the support of then-first lady (and ex-librarian) Laura Bush, has grown from about 30,000 attendees in its early years to about 130,000 visitors last year … in the rain.

The National Book Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, along with another book festival you may have heard of.

This year’s National Book Festival is Sept. 25. Details haven’t been announced.

Hey, Mr. Rubenstein, over here!

Just kidding.

Sort of.