Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Welcome Matt

Last month LibraryThing held an extensive, worldwide search for a “Bookish and Social-Media Savvy” employee.

We ended up unable to choose! The job is big, and we wanted to take it up a notch. So we chose two people–a small team devoted to helping LibraryThing members and advancing the site however and wherever it could be advanced. The first is Matt Mason, joining us as the “intern” or “junior” member of the team. (The other is Loranne; check out her blog post.)

Matt (LT member matthewmason) was born in Portland, Maine and grew up in Kennebunk.

This past May he graduated from the University of Vermont with a BA in Latin and Italian Studies.

While at college, Matt wrote his thesis on two fascinating Latin poems composed by Dante Alighieri, and had the opportunity to work within the Special Collections department of the Bailey-Howe Library. He also studied for a semester at L’Università degli studi di Urbino Carlo Bo in Le Marche, Italy, widely exploring humanist Latin poetry and drinking espresso.

Matt’s favorite authors include Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Leo Tolstoy and Roger Lancelyn Green.

Besides reading and translating, he tries to cook and oil paint whenever he gets the chance, and has taken up pottery as a hobby.

Come say hi and welcome Matt and Loranne on Talk.

Labels: employees

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

September Early Reviewers batch is up!

The September 2013 batch of Early Reviewer books is up! We’ve got 104 books this month, and a grand total of 2,760 copies to give out.

First, make sure to sign up for Early Reviewers. If you’ve already signed up, please check your mailing address and make sure it’s correct.

Then request away! The list of available books is here:
http://www.librarything.com/er/list

The deadline to request a copy is Monday, September 30th at 6 p.m. EDT.

Eligiblity: Publishers do things country-by-country. This month we have publishers who can send books to the US, Canada, the UK, and more. Make sure to check the flags by each book to see if it can be sent to your country.

Thanks to all the publishers participating this month!

Taylor Trade Publishing Tundra Books Lion Fiction
Riverhead Books Bethany House Oxford University Press
Random House Ballantine Books Coffeetown Press
Prufrock Press Greenleaf Book Group Orbit Books
Henry Holt and Company McBooks Press Random House Trade Paperbacks
White River Press Ashland Creek Press Demos Health
WaterBrook Press Akashic Books Leafwood Publishers
Crown Publishing Quirk Books Milkweed Editions
Palgrave Macmillan O’Reilly Media Viva Editions
Informed Decisions Publishing AltWit Press Plume
William Morrow Bison Books Kurodahan Press
Hunter House BookViewCafe Human Kinetics
Whitepoint Press The Plaid Raccoon Press Gueem Books
Dewey Larson Publishing National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors Recorded Books
Dragonwell Publishing Orca Book Publishers JournalStone
Pants On Fire Press MSI Press Algonquin Books
Minotaur Books Exterminating Angel Press Galaxy Press
Galaxy Audio

Labels: early reviewers, LTER

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Goodbye Jeremy

Jeremy wins one.

Tim and Jeremy lose one.

Yesterday LibraryThing turned eight, and today we say goodbye to Jeremy Dibbell (jbd1), LibraryThing’s social-media guy and all-around LibraryThing soul.

After nearly three years at LibraryThing, Jeremy is moving on. Next week he begins work as Director of Communications and Outreach at Rare Book School, located at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. We’ve loaned him to Rare Book School each summer he’s worked for us. He’s looking forward to joining the team there full time.

Jeremy is a long-time and much-loved member of the team. He was an early adopter, and became LibraryThing’s official-unofficial head of the Legacy Library project long before he came to work for us formally. Most members probably know him from the newsletter, our Facebook and Twitter feeds, from member-help emails, and for his Talk posts, helping new members and laying out his vision for LibraryThing’s development.

We aren’t going to lose him completely. Jeremy will continue on for a few weeks helping us where he can and giving his successor(1) some tips. And he will continue as head of the Legacy Library project. Indeed, as he says, he’ll have more time for it now. I suspect he’ll make his views about the site known too. I doubt he could help it.

It’s not easy to summarize everything Jeremy has done for us. Some highlights include:

  • Sending 10,600 emails, not counting those that came from info@librarything.com. He saved us from drowning, and far exceeded what a run-of-the-mill “social media” manager could have done.
  • Growing the size of the Early Reviewers program from around 1,200 books/month to today’s 3,500 or 4,000/month.
  • Helping to design, troubleshooting and discussing every major new feature in the last three years.
  • Continued growth of the Legacy Libraries program (see an overview here), including the new landing page, most of the Libraries of Early America (1,500+), and a number of wonderful LL flashmobs.
  • Special events, like our edible books contests, and book spine poetry.
  • Playing Santa for SantaThings 2010 (the Book Depocalypse), 2011 and 2012.

Jeremy moved to Portland to take this job, living only a block away from my house and the office. (My wife and my son were particularly grieved to hear he was leaving.) Being in the office gave his advocacy for members and his vision for LibraryThing extra impact. He’s been at the center of every major decision–from features to hires–for some time now. He’d be harder to miss if his contribution was not more obvious in the culture he leaves behind.

Sad as we are, we’re also excited for him too. He’s been passionate about Rare Book School for years–continuing to help out there in the summer was a condition of his taking the job. Charlottesville is a beautiful place. It is also close by Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson built his library. When he left Jeremy gave my son Liam a children’s book about Monticello and Jefferson’s love of books. It is fitting that Jeremy is there now, with his Jefferson-sized library and bibliophilia.

So, from me and all the LibraryThing staff, thank you Jeremy.


1. In case you’re wondering, our social-media job is still open, but closing fast. See the job post.

Labels: employees, employment, jefferson, jeremy dibbell, jobs, legacy libraries

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

New historical libraries in LibraryThing: Mailer, Ransome, Galileo, de Sade, Child, Dana

Another update on some Legacy Libraries folks have added recently or are working on now:

Since I wrote last we’ve had one library completion, that of author Norman Mailer. Mailer’s library is at the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin, and we were able to bring it into LibraryThing by importing the MARC records. Thanks to jburlinson for adding in the records that didn’t import and for sprucing up Mailer’s profile page.

Mailer’s 851-title library contained a huge number of his own books in various editions and translations: check out his author cloud! Volunteer jburlinson commented on the author cloud “I think he would have been pleased with how it looks.”

If you have any information on additional Mailer books, &c., please let us know in the discussion thread.

Another author’s library in the works is that of Arthur Ransome, being cataloged by LTer cynfelyn. Ransom’s catalog so far includes more than 700 identified titles, with a bunch more still to be added.

My favorite collection from Ransome’s library so far is Lakes & Pirates, a list he drew up for children who enjoyed his books and were looking for other reading material.

Know of other Ransome books? Tell us in the discussion thread.

Legacy Libraries volunteer ColmGuerin is hard at work on the library of Galileo Galilei. Nearly 300 titles have been entered so far, with more to come.

Galileo’s library was collected by his student Vincenzo Viviani, and bequeathed by Viviani to the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. The books are now among the collections of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, the National Central Library in Florence. You can get a sense of the books entered so far from Galileo’s tag cloud.

As always, we’d appreciate any assistance or additional information on this library: jump into the Talk thread!

Another recent addition is the library of the Marquis de Sade, being cataloged by lolawalser from a transcription of a 1776 inventory of de Sade’s chateau, La Coste. So far a total of 295 titles have been identified and added, including a fair number of works by Rousseau, Locke, Hume, Hobbes, and Voltaire.

Speaking of Voltaire, his library still has many books to be added, so if you’re feeling adventurous (and/or have pretty good knowledge of French), join us! There’s a discussion thread where we’re working out the details, and a wiki page where you can claim a section and add some books.

We’ve started work on the library of Julia Child, a good chunk of which is now in the collections of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard. To help out with this one, please join us in the Talk thread and we’ll get you set up with some books to catalog (much easier to manage than Voltaire’s, to be sure).

Finally, on the Libraries of Early America front, I’ve been working on adding the books of Francis Dana (1743-1811), a Massachusetts lawyer and diplomat. Dana’s library is pretty neat in that it’s drawn from not only some lists of books, but also an impressive collection of receipts and order lists which document his book purchases, loans, and other things quite nicely. I’ve been a little busy what with moving and all, but I hope to finish Dana’s library off before too much longer.


How can I help? We’re always looking for volunteers to help catalog Legacy Libraries. Come join the Legacy Libraries group: introduce yourself, tell us some authors or other historical figures you’re interested in, and we’ll come up with a good Legacy project that would benefit from your help. If you know of somebody important we’re missing, let us know: if we can add their library, we will!

Labels: legacies, legacy libraries

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Author interview: Samantha Shannon on “The Bone Season”

Some excerpts from my interview with Samantha Shannon, which appeared in the August State of the Thing newsletter. Samantha is the author of The Bone Season, the first volume in a seven-part series, released just yesterday by Bloomsbury.

Do you recall which part of The Bone Season came to you first? Was there a particular moment that inspired the novel?

I was doing an internship at a literary agency in Seven Dials—a junction in London where seven streets meet—when I had the idea. I imagined a girl having the exact same day at work that I was, but she happened to be clairvoyant.

The Bone Season is set in 2059, but in an alternate world which diverged from our own in 1859. I’d love to hear how you set about developing the universe in which the novel takes place, and the sorts of things you had to consider as you did so.

I wanted my clairvoyant society to be a cross-section of historical types of divination, so I did quite a lot of reading about classical and Renaissance impressions of augury, soothsaying and so on. Scion evolved in my mind as a response to the criminal underworld (whereas in the story itself it’s vice versa), and I did a lot of thinking about how to create a believable world in which clairvoyance is persecuted, and about what the people of Scion might hear, see, feel and think in their everyday lives.

Much of The Bone Season is set in what was once Oxford (where you have, I should note, recently finished your undergraduate career). What was it about Oxford that made it work well as the setting?

Oxford was perfect for The Bone Season. Although it’s a modern place in many respects, there are still vestiges of archaism and tradition, and its spectrum of old buildings, from various centuries, give it an eerie sense of being frozen in time.

Who are some of the authors you particularly admire or who’ve had some influence on your own writing?

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale was what first got me interested in dystopian and speculative fiction, alongside Orwell and Wyndham. I specialised in Emily Dickinson at university; her poetry inspired many of the themes I want to explore in later Bone Season books.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

I just finished The Gamal, the debut of Irish novelist Ciarán Collins, which I thoroughly enjoyed. At the moment I’m reading the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire.

Samantha also talked to me about working with Imaginarium Studios on the film version of The Bone Season, and told me what she’s liked most about the publishing process. Read the rest of our interview.


If you’d like to receive our State of the Thing newsletter, you can add it in your email preferences. You’ll need have to have an email address listed.

Labels: author interview, state of the thing

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

LibraryThing is Hiring: Bookish and Social-Media Savvy?

This could be you! (clockwise: ChrisC, Kate, Abby, Tim, Mike, ChrisH; unpictured Seth, KJ, Jeremy.)

This could be you too, and wouldn’t that be great?
(photo by member Bluesky1963)

LibraryThing is hiring(1) a full-time, bookish, social-media savvy employee. We want someone who lives and breathes books, and would jump at the chance to talk to book lovers, authors, publishers and librarians.(2)

This is an anywhere position, but we will favor Portland, Maine people. If you live elsewhere, you’ll be expected to spend time in Portland at the start of the job, and return on a regular basis.

You must:

  • Love books
  • Love people, or at least not hate them
  • Be in tune with What Makes LibraryThing LibraryThing
  • Be deeply familiar with social media and bookish social media
  • Write well and quickly
  • Be hard-working, optimistic, and detail-oriented
  • Able to work and set goals independently

We’d like:

  • A book-world background (librarian, bookseller, publishing, etc.)
  • Professional social-media experience
  • Technical skills (HTML, CSS, SQL, PHP, etc.)
  • LibraryThing membership, familiarity
  • Some useless expertise and passion, to fit in with the rest of the staff.

Duties:

  • Write our newsletters, blog posts, tweets, and Facebook posts
  • Coordinate our Early Reviewers program
  • Assist members with problems
  • Be an active presence on the site, well-known to members and participating in important LibraryThing discussions
  • Suggest and help develop new features and projects
  • Learn, analyze and look for new opportunities

Compensation: Salary plus gold-plated health and dental insurance. We require hard work, but we are flexible about hours.

How to apply: Resume [as a PDF file] is good. Don’t send one of those overboiled cover letters, sent as another damn Microsoft Word document titled “Cover Letter,” but a brief introduction would be good, recapitulating the bullets above and how they do or don’t fit you. Send emails to tim@librarything.com.(3)


1. Jeremy (member JBD1) is moving on and up; he’ll be the new Director of Communications and Outreach at Rare Book School in Charlottesville, VA. It’s a great move for Jeremy–he’s been going down there to help them run the summer sessions for four years now. He’ll continue as unofficial-but-unquestioned leader of the Legacy Libraries project. We’ll bid him a proper good-bye in a later blog post.
2. In another company this might be called a “social media manager” job, but we don’t “manage” our members, we talk to them. We don’t want fake, we want nice but genuine.
3. Please title the email “LTSOCMED [your name].” Also, follow directions–even the ones at the end of a blog post.

Labels: employees, employment, hiring, jeremy dibbell, jobs

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Seven newly-completed personal libraries: Joyce, Pym, Truman, Thackeray, Eisenhower, Marshall and Carroll

It’s been a busy few weeks for the Legacy Libraries, with a whole bunch of projects recently completed plus a number of fascinating new ones now underway (more on those later in the week). Today I’ve got a rundown of recently-finished libraries, plus a trivia question for you which I’ll answer at the end of the post: which novel is held in common between five of the seven?

James Joyce. One of the longest-running Legacy projects, James Joyce (started back in 2008 by rfb) was recently brought as near to completion as currently possible by BuiltByBooks, who added extant copies held at the Harry Ransom Center and the University of Buffalo, as well as a number of additional books identified through catalogs and other sources. The Joyce library now includes some 1,175 titles: see the author cloud or the tag mirror to get a quick sense of Joyce’s books.

More titles will be added to this library as they are identified (there are certainly lots more out there: we know that Joyce parted with some 2,000 books in Paris in 1939, and most of those have not yet been identified specifically). There’s a great deal of information about Joyce and his books on his profile page; the story makes for fascinating reading! If you have information about Joyce books not included in the LT catalog yet, please let us know in the discussion thread.

Barbara Pym. Thanks to alison_felstead, LibraryThing now includes the library catalog of British novelist Barbara Pym (author page). Pym, known for her novels Excellent Women and Quartet in Autumn (among others) was described in a 1977 article by Philip Larkin and Sir David Cecil as the most underrated writer of the twentieth century.

Pym’s 590-title library was cataloged by her sister Hilary Walton after Pym’s death in 1980, and the records are held at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Those have been augmented in the LT catalog with information from Blackwell’s Rare Books catalogs (through which much of Pym’s library was sold in 2005).

Alison, who works at the Bodleian Library, will be speaking about the Pym Legacy Library project at the Barbara Pym Society’s annual conference at the end of this month (see the program here), so if you’re in or around Oxford, be sure and go see her presentation!

Harry Truman. Another long-running project recently completed is the library of Harry Truman, begun back in 2008 with a section of books from his home study. This summer I cleaned up the existing records and completed the cataloging of the home study collection (now numbering 833 titles), and then a number of volunteers jumped in to help out in adding books from Truman’s post-presidential working office (795 titles).

Thanks to mrmapcase, cbl_tn, Michael.Rimmer, pussreboots, Kaczencja, WillowOne and waitingtoderail for their good work on this library. If you have information about other Truman books we should add, let us know here.

Note that certain books in the Truman library (mostly in the home study collection) post-date Truman’s death, and were likely added by Bess Truman. To what extent the books listed there belonged to her is somewhat unclear, and we’re seeking additional information from the National Park Service to help us try and clarify that.

William Makepeace Thackeray. The library of author William Thackeray (known for Vanity Fair) originally intrigued BuiltByBooks during his work on the Leonard & Virginia Woolf library, which contains a volume from Thackeray’s collection. He tracked down an 1864 auction catalog of Thackeray’s books and added to LibraryThing 391 titles that were identified in the catalog. A whole bunch more listed there cannot be identified specifically, as is often the case with such sales … but Thackeray’s books were marked with a small oval stamp containing his initials, so we’re hopeful that perhaps other books will turn up.

If you have information about any additional Thackeray titles, please let us know here.

Dwight D. Eisenhower. Back in May we started a flash-mob project to catalog the library of Dwight D. Eisenhower (or, at least, those portions of Eisenhower’s library located at his farm in Gettysburg, PA). We zipped right through it, and the LT catalog now includes some 904 titles covering all sorts of different subjects, from humor to mysteries to biographies (check out the tag cloud). There are more Eisenhower books to be added from other locations, and we will add those later on as the source material becomes available.

Thanks to all those who helped out with this library: KCGordon (who also sussed out the source list for us), cpirmann, tortoise, Esquiress, mrmapcase, jcbrunner, buk1968, and waitingtoderail.

George C. Marshall. Nearly 900 titles from the library of American military commander and cabinet secretary George C. Marshall were recently added to LibraryThing by KCGordon, who obtained a list of the books in the collections of the Marshall House (previously known as Dodona Manor) in Leesburg, VA. Lots and lots of history, military, and government books on Marshall’s shelves, as you might expect, but he also had a fair number of humor books, French literature, and poetry titles as well.

With whom does Marshall share the most books in common? Why Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg, of course.

Lewis Carroll. Last but certainly not least, BarkingMatt has finished work on the library of Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known to us as Lewis Carroll), amounting to some 2,600 titles from auction and bookseller catalogs. Some of the catalog descriptions are quite useful, giving information on the presentation signatures or marginal notations in the books: Carroll’s copy of Idylls of the King, for example, was presented to Carroll by Tennyson himself, while a copy of a play derived from Alice in Wonderland contains “notes in pencil by [Carroll] criticising the performance.”

A huge thanks to all the volunteers who have worked on these libraries! As I mentioned at the top, there are a number of new, exciting Legacy projects being worked on now, but I’m going to save those for another post since this one’s gotten fairly extensive already (I’ll be posting about completions more frequently in future, so we don’t run up quite such a backlog—my apologies). But I did promise an answer to the trivia question: which novel is held in common by five of the seven newest Legacy Libraries?

Drum roll please … the answer is Jane Eyre, copies of which are to be found in the libraries of Pym, Eisenhower, Joyce, Carroll, and Thackeray. See other books these libraries share, or take a look at the books you have in common with them here.


How can I help? We’re always looking for volunteers to help catalog Legacy Libraries. Come join the Legacy Libraries group: introduce yourself, tell us some authors or other historical figures you’re interested in, and we’ll come up with a good Legacy project that would benefit from your help. If you know of somebody important we’re missing, let us know: if we can add their library, we will!

Labels: legacy libraries

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Author interview: Paul Collins on “Duel with the Devil”

Some excerpts from my interview with Paul Collins, which appeared in the July State of the Thing newsletter. Paul teaches in the MFA program at Portland State University, and is the author of many books, including Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, The Book of William, and more. He’s also NPR’s “literary detective,” and writes for a wide variety of publications. His new book, Duel with the Devil was published in June by Crown.

In Duel with the Devil you tell the story of a gruesome 1799 New York City murder case in which a young woman’s suitor is accused of causing her death. The young man puts together something of a “dream team” of defense lawyers: who were his attorneys, and how did he manage to obtain such impressive counsel?

The defendant, Levi Weeks, managed to get the three best lawyers in NYC: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Brockholst Livingston. Weeks was a construction foreman, but his brother Ezra Weeks happened to be the most successful developers in the city—and Hamilton and Burr were both clients of his! Hamilton in particular was running up an impressive tab (which he couldn’t pay) having Weeks build him a mansion, so he certainly owed a favor.

I might add that while Livingston’s the least known of the trio, he was no slacker himself: the guy was later appointed to the Supreme Court.

This wasn’t the only time Hamilton and Burr found themselves on the same side of a courtroom, right? What others sorts of cases did they cooperate on?

They usually worked on commercial cases—property disputes, insurance cases over lost ships, that sort of thing. They were often on opposite sides, but not always—in fact, right before this case, they’d wrapped up a monster settlement for a client named Louis Le Guen. Since Aaron Burr was even worse with money than Hamilton, he promptly asked Le Guen for a loan!

You’ve got one of the best titles out there, as NPR’s “literary detective.” I’d love to hear a bit about how you seek out the sorts of fascinating historical stories you like to tell: do you go in search of them, or do they tend to be just things you’ve stumbled across in the course of other research and then decide to follow up on?

Often I’ll just grab random old newspapers and magazines (in libraries or online) and start snooping, but a surprising amount of the time it’s weird, random stuff I find while looking up something else. Chance favors the prepared mind and all that.

On this book in particular, though, a lot of the small and odd details came pretty systematically—namely, I read through nearly every available Manhattan newspaper from 1799 and 1800. That’s not quite as insane as it sounds, because newspapers back then were 4 pages long! Still, it was thousands of pages, but that’s always my favorite part of writing—wandering through those lost-dog notices and molasses shipments and yellow fever quack cures. Probably a whole bunch of other stories will now spin off from that experience.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

The British Library recently reissued Andrew Forrester’s Victorian pulper The Female Detective (1864), which I’d never read before and was fascinated by. As a writer, I really love the premise of Alexandra Horowitz’s new book On Looking—basically, walking around the same NYC neighborhood eleven times with different kinds of experts observing it each time. And as someone fascinated by disastrously bad movies, I’m excited to see Tom Bissell’s upcoming The Disaster Artist, about the making of “The Room.” I was actually with Tom the first time either of us saw it, and…wow. Just…wow.

Also, I’ve just come off a Wodehouse reading jag. After eight or nine of his books in row I felt like I’d consumed an entire sheet cake, but it’s a testament to him that, well, I’m seriously thinking of reading a tenth.

But wait, there’s more! Find out what Paul’s working on now, and about some surprising tidbits he’s found during his researches. Read the rest of our interview.


If you’d like to receive our State of the Thing newsletter, you can add it in your email preferences. You also have to have an email address listed.

Labels: author interview, state of the thing

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

August Early Reviewers batch is up!

The August 2013 batch of Early Reviewer books is up! We’ve got 106 books this month, and a grand total of 3,225 copies to give out.

First, make sure to sign up for Early Reviewers. If you’ve already signed up, please check your mailing address and make sure it’s correct.

Then request away! The list of available books is here:
http://www.librarything.com/er/list

The deadline to request a copy is Monday, August 26th at 6 p.m. EDT.

Eligiblity: Publishers do things country-by-country. This month we have publishers who can send books to the US, Canada, the UK, and more. Make sure to check the flags by each book to see if it can be sent to your country.

Thanks to all the publishers participating this month!

The Permanent Press Taylor Trade Publishing Tundra Books
Putnam Books Riverhead Books Random House
Quirk Books Henry Holt and Company Del Rey
Minotaur Books Nilgiri Press Candlewick Press
Crown Publishing Dundurn Cleis Press
Viva Editions Apex Publications Akashic Books
EgmontUSA Maiden Lane Press WaterBrook Press
Thomas Dunne Books Pants On Fire Press O’Reilly Media
Kregel Academic & Ministry Chronicle Books Palgrave Macmillan
Milkweed Editions Algonquin Books Demos Health
Greenleaf Book Group Pale Fire Press Hunter House
Alaskan Gothic Press HarperCollins Human Kinetics
CarTech Books Recorded Books McBooks Press
Bridgeross Communications BookViewCafe Last Light Studio
JournalStone Orca Book Publishers Thunder Lake Press
Booktrope Open Books John Ott
Upper Rubber Boot Books MSI Press Elephant Rock Books
Small Beer Press

Labels: early reviewers, LTER

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Author interview: Travis McDade on “Thieves of Book Row”

For the July State of the Thing newsletter, I interviewed Travis McDade about his second book, Thieves of Book Row, published in June by Oxford University Press. Travis is curator of rare books at the University of Illinois College of Law, where he teaches a class called “Rare Books, Crime & Punishment.”

Set the scene for us, if you would, by providing a brief description of what Book Row was like during its heyday. Is there anyplace even comparable today?

Book Row was six blocks of Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue packed with bookstores and personalities. Most of these shops were run by men who had learned the trade at the elbow of other booksellers, so there was a well-earned knowledge of the book business, of lower Manhattan and of other booksellers’ aptitudes. These guys were well-read and hard-nosed. There is a tendency now to look back with the sort of nostalgic, moonlight-and-magnolia gloss we often do with the recent past—and some of that is deserved—but Book Row wasn’t Disneyland. It was a labor of love for many of these guys, but it was definitely a labor. And life in Manhattan in the early 20th century was no picnic.

There are places now that have clusters of bookshops—Hay-on-Wye in the west of England springs to mind—but nothing like Book Row. What made it unique was a combination of these personalities, certain historical economic forces, and the nature of New York City at the time. It couldn’t have existed anywhere else, and it can’t exist now.

The theft ring you write about in Thieves of Book Row was no fly-by-night operation: these guys were organized! Give us a sense of how the operation worked, who was involved, and the impact these thefts had on the book and library world of the time.

Like most cottage industries, it developed organically. It started out as just some guys stealing books and selling them to shops—the classic American story!—and it grew from there. A confluence of events made this theft ring, like Book Row itself, possible. By the second half of the 1920s, there was reliable transportation, a decent economy and a rise in the value of a certain type of books. These books, as it happened, were sitting on the open stacks of libraries all over the American northeast, most librarians not even imagining they were worth the effort to steal. Once, at least, they had been right about that. But by the 1920s, it made good business sense to send men from Manhattan to Worcester, Massachusetts, to steal half a dozen books, if the men could then easily move on and hit Lancaster, Leominster, Gardner, etc. The thieves would get paid a standard rate of $2 per book and the bookstores would sell them for anything from $25 to $1,000.

Just to give an indication of how large the theft ring was, by the time it came to an end, the major problem was not getting the books out of libraries but finding places to store the surplus.

One of the key thefts you focus on in the book is the snatching of a copy of Poe’s Al Araaf from the New York Public Library. What made this particular book such a desirable commodity at the time? And how did that theft turn out for the thieves in the end?

Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems was Poe’s second publication, but the first to use his name. Like much of his early work, because it had not been popular, few copies were saved. This, coupled with the fact that the value of Poe works had been party to an inexorable upward climb for three decades, made it a hot commodity.

I’ve tried to get my head around the “why” of the theft. The question “what were they thinking” is often hard to understand in retrospect, and I confess I can’t be sure what the answer is. The theft from the New York Public Library seems to me a great deal like awaking a slumbering giant. The NYPL employed a man whose sole job was to keep its books safe—a unique position at the time—and had powerful allies in the city. When there were so many other compliant victims out there, why would anyone want to give the NYPL a reason to get involved? Recklessness? Spite? Because it was there? I don’t know, but it spelled doom for the theft ring.

Tell us about the research for this book. What sorts of sources did you find that allowed you to reconstruct this theft ring and its deeds so thoroughly?

This book started out as a small part of a chapter in a larger book, when my only sources were a few newspaper articles and a New York appellate court case. Then I stumbled across a memoir that had a few pages on the theft and, very quickly after that, an article in a book collecting magazine from 1933. Each of these offered their own bits of information, each was written in an entirely different voice and each at different removes from the scene of the crime. Most of my previous research was based on court and law enforcement records—dry, fact-based, close-in-time material. The writing of this book, typified by those first sources, required me to draw on a range of much different sources to create a narrative.

Booksellers’ memoirs—even if they did not mention this crime, or Book Row—were great, adding a certain life to the book. But there were also other types of first-person reporting that was extremely helpful: correspondence, court testimony, depositions, etc. These are more raw than memoir, because they aren’t meant for public consumption, and so offer up little facts that a person would not ordinarily think to include in a more formal record.

I also read a lot of fiction from the time. Most of this was not helpful, except for providing context, but some bits and pieces made it into the story. There is even a little humor in the book, if you look hard enough. For example, I rely on a 1920s article from The New Yorker, at one point, to add levity to a passage; so you can probably guess that what humor exists is bone dry.

For more on Thieves of Book Row, what Travis is reading now, and a bit about what he’s working on next, read the rest of our interview.


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