Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Method to the Madness

HALLIE: Okay, how I wrote it--"1001 Books for Every Mood" was written at a dead run. Six months, start to finish. My husband donated an old library card catalogue box (see photo) to the effort, and I started with the moods. "For a Good Laugh" and "For a Good Cry" were quickly followed by "For a Wallow in a Slough of Despond." Then "To Behave." Followed of course by "To Misbehave"--entries for that one include "Fear of Flying," "Moll Flanders," "Wicked," and "Where the Wild Things Are."

Of course they include my personal favorites, but the truth is, most of the books I've read I wouldn't include because I wanted (as Miss Jean Brodie would have said) the creme de la creme. For months I carried around 3x5 cards and asked everyone who had the temerity to be carrying a book--people on trains and busses, in restaurants and on street corners. I got some pretty strange looks, but most of the time people are delighted to be asked. I also asked booksellers and librarians and book groups.

I jotted each title on a card, and gave the ones I hadn't read my unscientific "sniff test"--I read the opening, sampled more pages, and then checked out all the book reviews and readers' comments I could get my hands on. If the book "passed," I found a mood for it and added it to the file box.

HANK: So it just got bigger and bigger? I love organization--files and charts and lists. So I think the process sounds like so much fun, and like putting together a wonderful jigsaw puzzle when you don't even know yet what picture it's making. (But then, I don't have a deadline.)

How did you decide to use all the icons? Knowing in one glance if a book is provocative, or funny, or a page-turner--it's like a Michelin guide for books, you know?

How did you decide literary merit, if you can reveal it? And how did you do the quizzes? And oh, was there a book that everyone wanted? That came up again and again? And you said you included your favorite..will you tell?

Ah, reporter me can't stop with the questions. You can see I think this book is fascinating. Not only the result, but the process.

HALLIE: Yup, it grew like Topsy. My pile of discarded titles is about 500-strong.

You're right, Hank, I sort of thought of this as a Michelin or Zagats for books...hence the icons. How many stars to give for literary merit? It was easy if the book won book prizes, but otherwise I based the rating on the excerpts I read, the book reviews, and reader comments.

Yes, there were favorites that kept coming up over and over. But once you get past Austen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner (yes, there are people who can read Faulkner), and Stephen King. there's a surprising diversity among the books people suggest. That's because there's no one "reader" out there--there's the occasional omnivore, but there are also those who read only literary fiction, or history, or mystery, or romance, or sci-fi, or sports or ... That's why there's such a range of titles in there.

Okay, okay -- here are some of my favorites:
- The Time Traveler's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (Mark Haddon)
- The Thurber Carnival (James Thurber)
- A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
- Rootabaga Stories (Carl Sandburg)
- Alice, Let's Eat (Calvin Trillin)

And I had a great time putting together the quizzes. Here are some opening lines. What books are they from?
  • Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

  • Amerigo Bonasero sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.

  • In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.

  • In a country such as Amerika, there is bound to be a hell-of-a-lot of food lying around just waiting to be ripped off.

No cheating by looking them up! Titles will be posted Friday.


  1. How cool to see a real card catalog and real index cards! Even with all the great technology, there is something about having hard copies.

    One of my last holdouts is the real post-it notes. I can't live without them.

    Are we supposed to guess, or wait until Friday? Although, the only one I know is the first one.

    Kathy Sweeney

  2. I only know one and it's the easy one...fuggedabouddit.

  3. Yes, there are Luddites in this world who love 3x5 cards and little tabs. My favorite shopping is still for office supplies.

    YES< please do guess...or wait. The spelling of "Amerika" in the last one should be a tipoff to those of you old enough to remember...

  4. Luddites? We just love seeing the words, and being able to move them all around. It's a visiual thing, maybe. That card catalog drawer is wonderful. Little drawers to put little things in--love it .

    I used to adore to play in my dad's law office. We'd emboss things with their big corporate seal machine, and use the rubber stamps to stamp Confidential on each other.

    And even now in stationery stores, it's all I can do to keep myself from buying different colored folders and labels and stuff. And PENCILS! And holders for the pencils.

  5. You know what? A propos of Hallie's favorites: I LOVED Time Travellers Wife and I can recite many sections of Thurber Carnival.

    But I really, really, did not like A Little Princess. I didn't read it til I was a grown-up, and maybe that made a diference. But I thought it was creepy and unredeemed. And so it goes.

  6. I know #1 & #3. Does anyone want to take a stab at all four?

    Hallie, one of my husband's favorite presents is a Staples gift card. He can get lost in Staples or Office Max for hours. But as any professional organizer can tell you, having the stuff to get organized doesn't make it happen. Instead, we have additional drawers and piles of office supplies. In the early days of home computers, a software guy confided to me: "Most people who aren't keeping records with paper and pencil aren't going to keep up with them on the PC either."

    My love affair is with a good encyclopedia set. The online versions don't give you that thrill of exploring unrelated topics you just happen to pass by on the way to what you're looking for.

    Hank, if you want to give Frances Hodgson Burnett another try, I loved "The Lost Prince."