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LibraryThing: State of the Thing
Dear Reader,

Welcome to the May State of the Thing. New this month: twelve million records from Harvard University are now included in LibraryThing! We announce the winners of our edible books contest, and we're now offering free lifetime account to booksellers who want to catalog their reference libraries. We're also looking for a summer intern or two! We have author interviews with Hilary Mantel, Naomi Novik, Jonathan Gottschall, and a special Lisa Carey interview with Melissa Coleman. There are 2,841 free Early Reviewer books and thousands of Member Giveaway books available in May.

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News and features

Twelve million Harvard records! Our "Overcat" search index now includes some 12.3 million records made available by Harvard University in late April. When searching Overcat as you add your books to LibraryThing, you'll now see results from "Harvard OpenMetadata." This brings the total number of records in Overcat to more than 51 million! We're extremely pleased that Harvard released their metadata in this way, and we hope other libraries around the world will follow suit. More details here.

Edible Book Contest winners. Congratulations to LibraryThing member TheCriticalTimes, the grand prize winner in our first Edible Book Contest for this sponge cake version of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, complete with fondant kraken. We'd also like to congratulate our runners-up, members Unexpected and mellu, and our Honorable Mention prize-winners, infomagnet, and exlibrislady. You can check out their entries here, or see all of the submissions in the contest gallery. Thanks to all who entered this year's contest!

Booksellers: catalog your reference libraries! We're now offering booksellers free lifetime accounts for the purposes of cataloging their reference libraries. We got the idea from Brook Palmieri of Sokol Books, Ltd. (Sokol_Books_Ltd on LibraryThing; part of their reference library is pictured here). For details on how to claim your free account, see the blog post.

Summer internship at LibraryThing. If you're going to be around the Portland, Maine area this summer, and are interested in programming, design, and/or historical libraries, we might have an internship for you! Depending on your interests and skills, we may have you work on programming or design for LibraryThing.com; we’d also be interested in having some help on various Legacy Library projects, so if you have an interest in historical libraries and bibliography, we’d love to hear from you too! For details and instructions on how to apply, go here .

Free books: Early Reviewers

Read and review free books, before they even hit the shelves! We've given out a grand total of 111,919 books so far through Early Reviewers.

The May batch of Early Reviewer books contains 2,841 copies of 100 different titles. The deadline to request a free book to read and review is May 29 at 6 p.m. EDT. The June batch will be up at the beginning of the month.

The list of books

The most requested books so far this month:

Interview with author Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is the author of eleven novels, including Wolf Hall, for which she won the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, was published earlier this month by Henry Holt.

Originally, you've said, you planned just "one enormous book" on Thomas Cromwell, but now we're looking at a trilogy. When did you realize first that his story needed two books, and now three?

I think that fiction, even historical fiction, is inherently unpredictable. You know what the story is, but you don't know until you tell it where its power is located, where you will place the focus and how you need to shape it. I did originally imagine there would be just one book, but as I began to tell the story of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, I realized that it needed to be played out properly, that it couldn’t be hurried: that it was, in fact, the climax of a book, not an episode in a book. At that point, I decided that Wolf Hall would end with More's death, and the royal party heading for the house named in the title. With Bring up the Bodies, the process of discovery was virtually the same, though it still caught me unawares. I came to write the end of the Boleyns, and realized that I already had a book; the buildup to that tragedy is so stealthy, the climax so horrifying, that I thought the reader would want to pause, close the book, take a breath.

So the whole project reshaped itself for a second time, and very swiftly; in each case, the process of realization took a split second; and the second after that, it seemed obvious. To some readers it might sound as if my method of work is very disorganized. I'd prefer to think of it as an organic, evolving process: sudden discoveries and sudden demands breeding changes of tactics. I like to gather my material, think for a long time, but make the business of writing itself as spontaneous and flexible as possible. If I can I like to take myself by surprise.

What was it about Thomas Cromwell that initially drew you to him as a way to write about the Tudor period?

It appealed to me because his character had never been explored properly in fiction or drama. Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith and brewer, and this stratified, hierarchical society, he rose to become the king's right-hand man and eventually Earl of Essex; you have to ask, how did he do it? Luck? Calculation? Both, surely, but what combination of the two? And what drove him? When you worked for Henry VIII, the stakes were so high. One slip and you were dead. I wanted to try to work out what combination of ambition and idealism motivated Cromwell. In what ways was he typical of his time, and in what ways unique? And as I was asking myself, as I always do when I write I historical fiction, how did this man's life feel, from the inside?

When you stand in Cromwell's shoes, familiar events are defamiliarised. The story, which is irresistible in itself, comes up fresh and new.

Has your view of Cromwell changed as you've researched and written Wolf Hall and now Bring Up the Bodies? How about your view of Henry VIII, or of any of the other major players?

My view of all the players changes constantly, scene to scene. They're not fixed constructs in my mind. They're evolving as they interact with each other.

As you point out in your Author's Note to Bring Up the Bodies, you've taken some artistic liberties in order to form your narrative. Can you talk a bit about how, when you write historical fiction, you try to balance the use of historical detail with the dramatic requirements of a novel?

I explain in my note how I've omitted some minor characters to spare the reader too many names. But I want to nod to the fact that they did exist, that the real story is always more complicated than any narrative that I (or any historian) can devise. In general, I wrap my narrative around the facts, rather than the facts around my narrative, and I trust the reader to stick with me when it gets complicated. So you could say I take minimal liberties. And yet, in another way, the whole project is a giant exercise in liberty-taking. Readers ask me, "How can I tell the fact from the fiction?" The answer is that every time I say, "He thought ..." I'm making it up. That's the essence of what a novelist does: try to access the inner life. You do that on the basis of the best information you can get about the outer life.

It's hard to answer the question in general terms; it's easier to look at a specific page and analyze what choices have been made. It is a matter of multiplying endless small choices, constantly making judgments about what to employ and what to elide. You are looking always for the telling detail, the one that will open up the reader's picture of the world you are creating, or guide the reader towards an insight that perhaps surprises them. I do believe the facts have priority, and the skill lies in respecting them and yet producing a narrative that is dramatic, shapely, plausible and coherent. The skills the writer is using are the ones she uses in any form of fiction, but she has certain constraints, guidelines to work within, problems to solve; within the framework of the documented facts, she has to find her imaginative freedom. I enjoy that challenge: trying to solve the puzzles, to cut through very complex events in a way that simplifies without distorting. I read as widely as I can, all the sources I can lay my hands on. I look for the contradictions. I consider various interpretations of the material, reading as many historians as I can. Then I try to work out what I myself believe, to thrash out a version that respects history but is also lively and persuasive and human.

Read the rest of our interview with Hilary Mantel.

Interview with author Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik is the author of the fascinating Temeraire fantasy series. The latest volume, Crucible of Gold, was published in March by Del Rey. Naomi lives in New York City.

The Temeraire series has been compared to Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, "but with dragons." What do you think of the comparison, and did O'Brian's series play a role in Temeraire's origins?

I'm actually the one who made the comparison originally; I think I told somebody that, it's sort of my one-line summary. I'm a huge, huge Aubrey-Maturin fan, and that was sort of the initial impetus for me. I'm a huge fan of both history and that period; I've read about a dozen Napoleon biographies just for fun, as well as Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, a couple of my favorite authors. And then I'd seen, shortly before I wrote Temeraire, the movie "The Far Side of the World," and I thought "All right this is great, I'll pick up the series" and I tore through the twenty-one books in the span of two weeks. The thing that it gave me was a desire to write a sort of adventure set in that time period, because what I had previously was the Jane Austen side of it and not the swashbuckling adventure side of the Age of Sail. I didn't quite have that central image, and that's what the Aubrey-Maturin series gave me. Trying to pull the two together is kind of where Temeraire came from.

You've written that there will be two more books in the Temeraire series. Did you have the whole series plotted out from the beginning, or has it taken shape over time? If the former, have you changed any major trajectories during the writing process?

I knew as I wrote the first book that I had more to say, and then I worked on the first three books in the series together, and by the time I was finished with the third one I knew the overarching subplot was going to be the thread of liberty, of dragons' rights, and the main plot was going to be the Napoleonic Wars. So that was going to be the sweep of the story that I was going to tell; within that, though, I've definitely adjusted a lot. I like to discover my plot as I go, so I don't actually have everything completely plotted out. At this point I'm getting pretty close to having the last details figured out, but not quite yet.

On your website, you offer a few "deleted scenes" from the Temeraire books, and you note there "I tend to write fast and revise heavily, and I cut liberally." Tell us a bit more about your writing process: when do you do most of your writing? Where? Do you compose in longhand, or use a computer?

I have no rules other than that I tend to change my rules fairly often. Each book has worked differently. My life has changed quite a lot over the course of writing the series—I have a new baby now, so I write from 9:30 to 4:30 because that's when I have child care. My natural state of writing is really more writing from 11 in the morning to 3 a.m.; that's my intuitive style. I do generally like to work at a fairly fast pace—when it's flowing I'm getting two to three thousand words a day. I still like to get the skeleton down and then polish it. My single biggest trick for when I need to focus and get productivity is to go somewhere where there isn't internet, so I'll go to a café with a laptop and just write there. It's actually getting increasingly hard to avoid the internet, though. I don't really write longhand unless I get stuck; if I get stuck, then what I do is grab a journal and start writing some longhand, and that loosens things up a bit. Once I've started, I like so much having the freedom to revise heavily and save different versions that I always really want to be on the computer.

Read the rest of our interview with Naomi Novik.

Interview with author Jonathan Gottschall

Jonathan Gottschall teaches English at Washington and Jefferson College. He is the author of four books, including The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, published in April by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

If you can give us the nutshell version, what is it about stories (whether it be fiction, or drama, or televised sports, or dreams, or computer games) that makes us as humans so attracted to them, and gives them such a powerful hold over us?

Homo sapiens is this weird sort of primate that lives inside stories, and we don't know why for certain. I cover several competing ideas in the book, but they all break down into two big categories. 1) We like stories because they have hidden evolutionary benefits. 2) The mind isn't designed for story, it has a glitch that makes it vulnerable to story. In the latter view, fiction is like porn—a mere pleasure technology that we’ve invented to titillate the pleasure circuits of the brain. I argue that story addiction is mainly good for us: story is a whetstone for the mind, and it acts as a kind of social glue—helping to bind individuals together into functioning societies.

It was an experience with a song that prompted you to write this book, as you note in the opening pages. Tell us about that moment, and do you see significant differences in the way humans are affected by stories in different media (print, song, video, &c.), or does the impact tend to be similar?

One day, I was driving down the highway and happened to hear the country music artist Chuck Wicks singing "Stealing Cinderella"—a song about a little girl growing up to leave her father behind. Before I knew it, I was blind from tears, and I had to veer off on the road to get control of myself and to mourn the time—still more than a decade off—when my own little girls would fly the nest. I sat there on the side of the road feeling sheepish and wondering, "What just happened?" I wrote the book to try to answer that question. How can stories—the fake struggles of fake people—have such incredible power over us? Why are we storytelling animals?

And yes, different forms of storytelling affect us in different ways. Most popular songs are stories set to music, and they evoke powerful emotion. The same goes for films. People respond so intensely and authentically to film, that when psychologists want to study an emotion, like sadness, they subject people to clips from tear-jerkers like "Old Yeller" or "Love Story".

The Storytelling Animal draws on research from a wide range of fields (biology, psychology, neuroscience, and more) to explore the origins and role of story in human life. What are some of the lingering questions in this area that you think future scientific study might be able to answer?

By the time we die, we all spend more time in the story worlds of fiction, fantasy, and dreams than we do in the "real" world. So we need sharply focused scientific attention on how this shapes us individually and culturally. I’d also like to see scientists, scholars, and artists teaming up to try to answer that big "Why?" question about how we evolved as storytelling animals. This is one of the biggest mysteries in human life and we've only begun to explore it.

You write that "Religion is the ultimate expression of story's dominion over our minds." Do you see this as a net positive for humanity, or have the negative effects of religious stories outweighed the benefits?

This sounds wishy-washy, but it's really a mix. Stories are at the foundations of virtually all religious systems. Flip through the Bible and you are flipping through an anthology of really powerful stories. In 1869 the German evolutionist Gustav Jager called religion "a weapon in the Darwinian struggle for survival." As Jager's language suggests, this doesn’t make religion a good thing. There are good things about religion, including the way sacred stories bind people into more harmonious collectives. But there is an obvious dark side to religion too: the way it is so readily weaponized. Religion draws co-religionists together and drives those of different faiths apart.

Read the rest of our interview with Jonathan Gottschall.

Lisa Carey interview with author Melissa Coleman

Melissa Coleman is the author of This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family's Heartbreak, now out in paperback. She is a columnist for Maine Home + Design magazine and serves on the board of The Telling Room, a writing center for children and young adults in Portland, Maine. She lives in Freeport, Maine, with her husband and twin daughters.

What made you decide to write this memoir? Was it something you always intended to write about?

Somehow I managed to avoid writing, and talking much, about my childhood for many years, fearing, I think, that I was responsible for some of the tragic things that happened. However, with the birth of my children, the past began urging me to make peace. I also found myself wanting to celebrate the beauty and connection to nature in my childhood, and the amazing effort made by my father, Eliot Coleman, and others, to lay the foundations for today's organic food revolution.

How much research was involved to bring such rich detail to the parts that occurred before you were old enough to remember it? You have your mother's journals. Did your parents help you otherwise in the process of telling this story?

I began with my own scraps of memories, images from photos, and family stories, but I needed to do a lot of research to fill in the blanks. There was my mother's journal, numerous news articles about us, books by the Nearings and others, and I tracked down and interviewed many of the apprentices and people who visited us during the 1970s. It was only with the help of all these people, especially my parents, that I was able to tell this story.

Was this a difficult book to write? Or was it liberating?

Both! It's incredibly difficult to dig into painful events in the past, but also very rewarding to let them go and find the beauty beneath. The liberation that came was something like what comes from making compost. You put all these scraps of things into a pile and let them settle and soon enough they turn into black gold, as my father calls compost, the rich soil in which new life can grow.

Some of the most beautiful scenes are the ones where you describe the connection to nature and the freedom you and your sister had growing up. This freedom came with a terrible price. How much does the fear from your own experience inform how you parent your own girls? And how do you share your love of the earth and connection with nature with them?

The natural world is the most powerful memory from my childhood. I'm reminded of lines from Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality," ("There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream/The earth and every common sight/To me did seem/Apparell'd in celestial light.") As children we have a strong connection to nature and God (or a greater power) that we often lose as we grow older. This is our "paradise lost." I find that magic again through contact with children and nature. And when I let go of the fear of loss, I live more fully.

Read the rest of Lisa's interview with Melissa Coleman.

Author chats

Author Chat lets you talk to authors—ask questions, get answers, and find out more about how or why a book is written. The schedule of upcoming chats is posted too, so you can plan to read the author's book ahead of time.

Current chat:

Upcoming chats:

Take me to the chats!

More free books: Member Giveaways

At any given time, there are hundreds of books available from our Member Giveaways program. Member Giveaways is like Early Reviewers, but isn't limited to select publishers—any author or member can post books. Request books, or offer your own!

Hot titles this month

  1. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  2. Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman
  3. The Hunger Games (Box Set) by Suzanne Collins
  4. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
  5. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
  6. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  7. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
  8. Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James
  9. The Litigators by John Grisham
  10. Crossed by Ally Condie

That's it.

Questions, comments, ideas, suggestions? Send them our way.

—Jeremy (jeremy@librarything.com)

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