Author! Author! Free Library of Philadelphia's speaker lineup

The authors are coming to the Free Library of Philadelphia.
The authors are coming to the Free Library of Philadelphia. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 14, 2013

Every autumn, the Free Library of Philadelphia's Andy Kahan pores over the catalogs of the big book publishing houses, preparing his wish list.

But Kahan isn't interested in acquiring books; he's looking for authors - specifically, for authors he can invite to speak at the Free Library.

For Kahan, booking the right authors is a never-ending conversation, revolving around authors who've never been to his library; popular authors who draw huge crowds ("Think Malcolm Gladwell, Deepak Chopra, Doris Kearns Goodwin," he says); and unique voices and dazzling prose styles ("Donna Tartt, Martin Amis, Edwidge Danticat").

"I enjoy your library," says Edwidge Danticat, who'll be here Monday to talk about her new novel, Claire of the Sea Light. "Two years ago, I had the honor of having my Create Dangerously chosen as a book that Philadelphia read together."

In Claire, Danticat returns to Haiti for a spirited tale of a fisherman's missing child. "It's not just me returning to my childhood, but also of having my father return to me as a little girl, because he had no choice but to leave the family when I was 2 to look for work in the United States," Danticat says. She also addresses the environment and how its depletion, in her hometown and others like it, leads people "to make impossible choices."

Though Kahan doesn't schedule seasons with an overarching theme, if the library's autumn list of speakers has an arc, it's biographers/autobiographers or novelists like Elizabeth Gilbert (Oct. 3), exploding reality with historical figures in newly imagined settings as she does in The Signature of All Things, set in part in Philadelphia during the 18th and 19th centuries with characters fresh from the history books.

Known for the gurulike nonfiction best-seller Eat Pray Love, Gilbert is no stranger to the novel. " Signature is a homecoming rather than a departure," says Gilbert, talking about her early novels such as Stern Men. "Fiction was my only intention, really, until I took that sharp turn with Eat Pray Love."

Kahan's glittering lineup of biographers ranges from Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Wednesday), which places Jesus within a geographical and historical context, to presidential biographers, including Pulitzer Prize-winner A. Scott Berg on Woodrow Wilson (Sept. 24) and Doris Kearns Goodwin on Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the golden age of journalism with The Bully Pulpit (Dec. 2).

"Wilson fills a gap," says Berg, biographer of Charles Lindbergh, Samuel Goldwyn, and Katharine Hepburn. "When I was writing my first books, I began to think of an entire shelf-full of biographies of great American cultural figures, each from a different wedge of the Apple Pie." Writing about Wilson, a Southerner, allowed Berg to explore the worlds of politics and government as well as higher education in the United States, "a field in which Wilson proved himself a visionary." Berg humanizes the 28th president, a man usually deified or despised. "His was a meteoric rise considering that in October 1910, Wilson was president of a small New Jersey men's college [Princeton] and by November 1912 he was elected president," Berg says.

New Yorker writer Jill Lepore will talk about her biography of Benjamin Franklin's sister, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (Oct. 2) and jazz fans will love Terry Teachout'sDuke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Oct. 29).

Kahan's roster of autobiographers includes 76ers legend Julius Erving, who tells his story in Dr. J: The Autobiography (Nov. 14), actress Anjelica Huston, author of A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York (Nov. 21), Czech gadfly/novelist Ivan Klima, who focuses on himself in My Crazy Century (Nov. 12), and Steely Dan leader Donald Fagen, who writes about his life in Eminent Hipsters (Oct. 24).

"I can't tell you how excited I am about Fagen," Kahan enthuses. "I used to drum to Steely Dan records when I was in high school.

Former Inquirer and Daily News staffer Michael Sokolove writes about the difference one extraordinary teacher can make in the lives of students - in this case, Lou Volpe, drama coach at Truman High School in Levittown - in Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater (Oct. 8). Kahan calls the book "a cross between Glee and Hoop Dreams."

Other notable authors visiting the library this fall include Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (Sept. 20). Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, has written a book that should, in Kahan's words, "scare the hell out of everyone talking about the management of the country's nuclear weapons arsenal."

Malcolm Gladwell, the smug genius behind The Tipping Point, writes about the beauty of obstacles and setbacks rather than demonizing them in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (Oct. 18).


Literary Lineup

Here's a partial list of authors speaking this fall at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. For a complete list and further information: www.freelibrary.org/authorevents, 215-567-4341.

Edwidge Danticat, Claire of the Sea Light, with Bob Shacochis, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, Monday at 7:30 p.m., free.

Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.; ticket required.

Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.; ticket required.

    Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, Sept. 20 at 7:30 p.m.; free.

  A. Scott Berg, Wilson, Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m.; ticket required.

   Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland, Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m.; ticket required, book included.

Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton, with Martin Amis,| Lionel Asbo: State of England , Oct. 1 at 7:30 p.m.; ticket required.

Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m.; ticket required.

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things, Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m.; ticket required.

Michael Sokolove, Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater, in conversation with Lou Volpe;

Oct. 8 at 7:30 p.m.; free.

Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Oct. 18 at 7:30 p.m.; ticket required.

Donald Fagen, Eminent Hipsters, in conversation with David Dye, Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m.; free.

Terry Teachout, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m.; free.

Donna Tartt,| The Goldfinch, Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m.; free.

Ivan Klima, My Crazy Century, Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m.; ticket required.

Ann Patchett, This Is a Story of a Happy Marriage, Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m.; ticket required.

Julius Erving, Dr. J: The Autobiography, Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m.; free.

Anjelica HustonA Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York, Nov. 21 at noon; ticket required.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m.; ticket required.

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