June 22nd, 2007


Literary Critic John Sutherland on Science Fiction

About a month ago, I was browsing the new books section in the library when I came across an intriguing title: How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide by John Sutherland. I glanced quickly through the book, and it looked like an interesting read. More importantly, however, the author displayed a sense of humor. The back of the book displayed a quotation from within the book itself, advising readers to be wary of endorsements on books (i.e. blurbs). But the back cover also boasted an endorsement: "This is a truly important book: no novel reader should travel the fictional road with it."

The source of the blurb? "John Sutherland, critic and literary guide."

So when I took it home to read, I was already primed to enjoy it. But it gets better.

When I pick up a book like this, and I see from the author biography that the author is a professor of English literature and the 2005 chair of the Man Booker Prize, I tend to make certain assumptions about the author's tastes. In particular, I go in expecting an author who recommends "highbrow" work, and who would exhibit disdain for "lowly" genre works, such as books found in the mystery, romance, and science fiction sections of the bookstore.

Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Sutherland had a taste for genre, apparently inculcated at a young age, but never abandoned completely. Although he does seem to have devoted his life and career to the "highbrow" works, he doesn't dismiss any work simply because it falls into a genre.

In fact, near the end of the book, he has this to say about my favorite genre of fiction:

Science fiction has done as much for the factual scientific education of the average reader as all the educational reforms introduced since C.P. Snow's 1959 polemic The Two Cultures lamented his fellow Britons' epidemic ignorance of the second law of thermodynamics. The fact, revealed in a survey by the magazine Wired in November 2005, that 40 per cent of Americans none the less believe that aliens are in the habit of routinely visiting our planet and taking away sample earthlings for full body cavity probes, suggests that sf may also have a lot to answer for in the dumbing down of the citizenry. But, on the whole, the genre has, I believe, made us more knowledgeable. (page 240)

I suppose I should not have been completely surprised. In the United Kingdom, where Sutherland comes from, they don't look down at genre fiction as much as they do in the United States. As it stands, at the conclusion of his book Sutherland includes a list of recommended novels, and among that list I found some of the better works of science fiction published throughout history. With any luck, he'll convince a few more people to pick a book within the genre and see for themselves its legitimacy.

Harry Potter and the Pre-Pub Alert

As a Library Trustee in the town of Brookline, I like to check on the status of the new books that are coming into the system. Fortunately, the Public Library of Brookline maintains a Pre-Publication Alert, that allows patrons not only to see what books have been ordered for the library, but to request holds on those copies when the books are finally processed. That way, savvy library patrons can ensure quicker access to the books they want.

A few months ago, I asked our library director if we were making sure to order enough copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It's going to be an expensive book, even at a discount, and a main role of libraries is to ensure books for patrons who might not be able to afford them on their own. Given the evident popularity of the Harry Potter series, I want to make sure that Brookline residents (especially our children) have as quick access to the book as possible. Frankly, the library is here to serve them, and I want them to appreciate that fact when paying their real estate taxes each year.

Our library director assured me that we would have plenty of copies on hand, and I can see from the book's record page (which can currently be found by clicking this link) that Brookline has ordered 32 copies of the book, and there may be more to come. But there's that other statistic at the top of the screen that I find even more interesting.

As of this morning, the Minuteman library network, which encompasses 41 member libraries, has 1048 holds on the first copy returned. And we're a month away from the release date. I wouldn't place money on it, but I wouldn't be surprised to see that number increase by an order of magnitude before the book is finally made available.