One of the things we learned as we studied public librarianship in school was the art of the book display, which is a librarian’s way of highlighting books that people might not otherwise think to check out. A similar concept is a book list, which offers up themed reading selections in the same way, but prints out titles and authors on paper instead of constructing a real-world display with physical books. That means it can be posted on the Internet or distributed over multiple libraries; also, a book that gets selected off a book display disappears, but its name is still on the list for people to place on hold.
Often book displays or lists focus on a theme, which can be pretty much anything – ‘Fiction and Fashion’, say, or ‘Spies in Paris’, or ‘Civil War Romance’. A clever librarian will often tie a book display to something that’s popular or topical right now. Here’s an example: there’s a lot of buzz about the new Twilight movie, so a savvy librarian might display on related themes: ‘Vampires in History’ or ‘Paranormal Romance’ or even simply ‘If You Like Stephenie Meyer, You Might Like These’.
(Personally, I’m hoping to one day create an ‘I Would’ve Picked the Werewolf’ book display for readers who think Jacob was a better choice, full of books with strong heroines, sweet love interests, and arrogant creeps who get their comeuppance.)
Today I happened upon a copy of the 2010 Visitors’ Guide for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. This is a big deal for Ontarians. The Stratford Festival is one of our most popular theatre destinations, featuring a fairly eclectic mix of traditional Shakespearean plays, historical classics, popular musicals, and contemporary shows. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun for a librarian who knows the Stratford Festival is a popular event for her patrons to create a book list based on the Stratford Festival repertoire?” There are so many directions you could take! How about focusing on something specifically related to the Festival as a whole? It could capture the imagination even of patrons who aren’t planning to attend a show in Stratford. For instance:
Shakespeare in Spades – Not just his works, but also fiction and non-fiction about his life and times, or about his characters.
Shakespeare Updated – Ever heard it said that Ten Things I Hate About You is an update of The Taming of the Shrew? Or that somebody is wrapped up in a classic Romeo & Juliet situation? Find a bunch of stories, set in the modern world, that retell traditional Shakespearean plots like “son seeks revenge for the death of his father” (Hamlet) or “controlling man seeks revenge in tropical paradise” (The Tempest). And why stop at Shakespeare – they say Bridget Jones’ Diary is just updated Jane Austen. See what you can find!
The Show’s the Thing – Since preparing a theatrical performance can be as dramatic as the subject matter it’s written about, why not gather together some fiction and non-fiction about the dramatic arts and performance? That could make for some extremely compelling reading.
Theatre Back Then – From Greek tragedy to Elizabethan drama to the Restoration comedy to vaudeville – and beyond – a greater knowledge of how theatre played out in past time periods could enrich the experience of a modern performance . . . or just make a restful backyard escape for the book-lover.
There’s also a possibility of creating not-necessarily-theatre-related displays inspired by the ideas, themes, and characters explored in individual performances. Think about it this way: Why not tailor reading lists around individual performances in ways that might inspire Festival fans to delve deeper into the ideas they’re seeing enacted on stage? Here are some ideas based on Stratford’s 2010 lineup:
As You Like It – “Crossing Boundaries.” This was one of several Shakespearean plays to exploit the comedic possibilities of cross-dressing and gender-bending. How about a scattering of other such instances – fictional, historical, or sociological – in which men dress up as women or women dress up as men? Alternatively, especially if there’s a big romance-novel crowd at your branch, the spotlight could shine on romantic comedy, romance and politics, or secret loves.
Dangerous Liaisons – “Revolutionary Stories.” This is a racy story based on a nineteenth-century novel that was banned as “an outrage to public morality”. It’s a great opportunity to put the spotlight on banned books or controversial, steamy stories. Not every library is well-suited to controversy, however, so it’s a good thing this is also a period piece. Fiction and non-fiction from around the time of the French Revolution could be a great alternative.
Do Not Go Gentle – “A Dylan Thomas Collage.” This is a one-man show about Dylan Thomas, and it put me in mind of a different approach. Select a particularly evocative piece of Dylan Thomas’ poetry, and make copies. Then, use that poem as the theme to tie together a display or a book list on Dylan Thomas, his life and times, his works, Wales, whisky, and anything else that matches nicely with the piece of poetry you’ve chosen
Evita – “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina!” Was there ever any better introduction to the country’s politics, history, and culture than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic? Femmes fatales and powerful women throughout history could also make a great Evita-inspired book list.
For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again – “Crazy-Making Mothers!” Almost everyone can relate to a mom who sometimes annoys you, sometimes makes you crazy, and loves you always. They’ve been mined quite thoroughly as a source of relatable humour. A book list might suggest some memoirs and stories about relationships between humourously exasperating mothers and their humiliated, humbled daughters and sons . . . or, choose worn-out and bittersweet mother love like that of Angela’s Ashes for a poignant twist.
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris – “Musical Living.” Since Jacques Brel was a real musician from Belgium, you might have some books about him somewhere around your library. But even if you don’t, what’s to say you can’t take a closer look at other (fictional and non-fictional) European musicians whose lives would make for compelling reading and compelling dramatic performance?
King of Thieves – “Dirty Double-Crossers.” It’s a story of corporate crime in the city, so it can easily lead into more stories of criminal dealings in the upper echelons of business and politics, where the stakes are high.
Kiss Me, Kate – “Drama Behind the Curtain!”This famous musical about performing a musical could inspire a book list about musical theatre more broadly. And if you think that sounds boring, well, the same kind of drama and antics you see in Kiss Me, Kate – with bickering co-stars and gangsters looking for loot – can appear in any kind of theatrical performance. Perhaps a behind-the-scenes look at theatre – fictional and non – is in order.
Peter Pan – “Never-Never Lands.” Fantasylands and fairy tales, whether traditional folk stories or modern adult concoctions, could form the backbone a great book list for this one. And don’t neglect non-fiction if you’ve got any fascinating literary criticisms talking about what those sorts of fairylands symbolize psychologically. That can make really interesting reading!
The Tempest – “Island Dreams – and Nightmares.” The Tempest takes place on a magnificent island where everything is not as perfect as it seems. Any story that starts off with an island escape and then turns sinister could be a perfect jumping-off point for a Tempest-inspired book list. And since Prospero is a magical wizard, let’s not shy away from supernatural themes here! (An even better idea given the recent popularity of Lost.)
The Two Gentlemen of Verona – “Romance in Black and White.” What stands out most about the Stratford Festival’s imagining of this Shakespearean classic, as far as I’m concerned, is the race politics it’s playing with. By casting black actors in certain roles and white actors in others, the director turned it into a story about a black man in love with a white woman, and his (white) best friend who abandons his (black) fiancee to pursue the white girl. It’s a comedy, but the underlying race issue could make for a compelling collection of reading material.
The Winter’s Tale – “A Child Without A Father.” Could there be any greater drama than a family in which suspicions about illicit affairs leads a man to doubt the paternity of his wife’s baby? It may sound like an episode of Maury Povitch, but the topic has appeared enough times in heart-rending fiction and real-life historical drama to make it well worth considering as a common thread to tie together a reading list.
And the neat thing about these particular sorts of book lists? They don’t depend on the library-going public having seen the plays or even having heard of them. They may be inspired by the Stratford Festival, and they may pique the interests of a patron whose Festival-going experience has made them curious about Argentina or corporate crime or mixed-race romance. But they can also be just as interesting to people who’ve had nothing to do with the Stratford Festival.
It’s all about generating interest. And as a librarian, sometimes all you need to make it happen is a little bit of inspiration. That can come from anywhere.
(To the reader: Let me know if you’d like to see any of these developed into an actual reading list, and I’ll see what I can come up with.)