In one book, the hero spirals toward a violent death dealing drugs on the
streets of Laurelton, Queens, witnessing, along the way, a baby ripped apart by
bullets. In another, a convict plots the seduction of his prison
And then there’s Angel, a Versace-clad seductress who shoots her boyfriend in
the head during sex, stuffs money from his safe into her Louis Vuitton bags and,
as she fondles the cash, experiences a sexual frisson narrated in terms too
graphic to reproduce here.
All these characters, and the novels they populate, are favorites of Shonda
Miller, 35, a devoted library-goer who devours a book a day, enforces a daily
hour reading time for her entire family and scours street stands and the
Internet for new titles. She also acts as an unofficial guide and field scout
for the Queens Library as it builds its collection of a fast-growing genre,
written mainly by black authors about black characters and variously known as
urban fiction, street lit or gangsta lit.
It’s not the kind of literary fare usually associated with the prim image of
librarians. But public libraries from Queens, the highest-circulation library
system in the country, to York County in central Pennsylvania, are embracing
urban fiction as an exciting, if sometimes controversial, way to draw new people
into reading rooms, spread literacy and reflect and explore the interests and
concerns of the public they serve.
“We’ve got people who are reading for the first time. We’ve got people coming
into our building asking for Teri Woods” — the creator of Angel — “who have
never come here before,” said Lora-Lynn Rice, the director of collections at the
Martin Library in York County, which held a weeklong symposium on urban fiction
during National Library Week in April. “Why would we not embrace this?”
Urban fiction’s journey from street vendors to library shelves and six-figure
book deals is a case of culture bubbling from the bottom up. That is especially
true in New York, where the genre, like hip-hop music, was developed by, for and
about people in southeast Queens and other mostly black neighborhoods that have
struggled with drugs, crime and economic stagnation.
Writers like Mark Anthony — who at 35 is Ms. Miller’s contemporary and the
author of “Paper Chasers,” based on his youth in Laurelton — found themselves
being rejected by agents and publishers. So they paid to self-publish their
books, with rudimentary design and cheap bindings, and sold them on 125th Street
in Harlem, or on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, around the corner from the borough
library’s main branch. Soon, a stream of people — high-school students,
first-time library users, the library’s own staff — were asking for the books.
And the librarians went out on the street to buy them.
“If there’s some cultural phenomenon going on out there and it’s not in here, we
want to know why,” said Joanne King, a spokeswoman for the Queens Library.
As a teenager in Far Rockaway, Queens, where she still lives, Ms. Miller read
gritty novels set in urban black neighborhoods of the 1960s and ’70s, by Donald
Goines and Iceberg Slim. Then there was a dry spell. She made do with Jackie
Collins until a new generation of urban fiction sprang up in the late 1990s.
“I read what I can relate to,” she said. “They’re writing about what I’ve
experienced. It’s easier than reading about Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive.”
Which is not to say Ms. Miller, a mother of four, has ever murdered anyone,
worked as a prostitute or been draped in diamonds by a drug-dealing boyfriend.
(Her husband of 19 years, an ex-Army man, is a garbage collector.) What she
recognizes are the characters’ fashions and pleasures (door-knocker earrings,
clubbing), their problems (few jobs, drug dealers offering your children fast
cash, people you know getting shot or stabbed) and their aspirations (striving
for a better life).
So she has made it her mission to bring more urban fiction into the Queens
libraries, which she visits as many as five times a week, checking out books she
reads on her subway rides to Manhattan to visit her son Tad, 17, who has been
hospitalized for four years with brain damage from a near-drowning.
Her oldest, Raishon, 19, reads his favorite urban titles aloud to Tad. Some
nurses blush at the profanity and sex; others ask to borrow the books.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘How can you let him read that?’ ” she said. “He lives
it every day. This is cotton candy compared to what they hear out there. And it
shows him there are consequences to living such a fast life.”
And besides, she said, when she makes her husband and children read every day
from 5 to 6 p.m., at home in the Ocean Bay housing project, “I don’t care what
they read — I only care that they read.”
Librarians tend to agree. But many libraries are only now catching up to their
public, which has already made urban fiction big business. Writers like Ms.
Woods, from Philadelphia, and Vickie Stringer, who writes about her former life
as a drug dealer and madam, have started their own publishing companies.
Mainstream publishers saw dollar signs and jumped in. St. Martin’s Press now
publishes authors from Mr. Anthony to the rapper 50 Cent — another Queens
native, born Curtis Jackson — and a subgenre of black erotica led by the writer
The genre has spawned best-selling authors like Omar Tyree and the rapper Sister
Souljah, whose novel “The Coldest Winter Ever” has sold a million copies; a
long-awaited sequel, "Midnight," is due out Nov. 4. It has also spawned literary
feuds: Kwame Teague, the convict whose life story was featured in Ms. Woods’s
“Dutch” and “Dutch II,” broke with her to publish the third volume himself.
And, of course, it has spawned a backlash, which has complicated its reception
in libraries. Its street language, graphic sex and violence — not to mention
covers featuring scantily clad models, often brandishing weapons — are
controversial in black literary circles, where critics say it perpetuates
stereotypes and lament that it is shelved next to literary writers like Toni
Morrison, a Nobel laureate. Mr. Tyree himself has declared that he’s not going
to write any more of it.
“There are black librarians who hate the genre, because they feel like it’s an
embarrassment culturally,” said Vanessa Morris, an assistant teaching professor
of library sciences at Drexel University.
But she says the genre tells the stories of African-Americans who survived the
1980s drug wars: “This is about documenting history, or, I should say,
Librarians point out that Harlequin romances, the Bobbsey Twins and even
paperbacks were once considered too lowbrow for libraries — and that Stephen
King and Ms. Collins also trade in sex and violence.
Ms. Morris credits the genre for a jump in circulation at the Widener Library in
North Philadelphia, where she began a book club for teenagers in 2005 and found
that three years later, many had expanded their interests to read science
fiction and biography.
At Q-Boro Books — Mr. Anthony’s publishing company, with offices over a
Jamaican-Chinese restaurant in Jamaica, Queens — the library’s embrace has been
great for business, since libraries buy multiple copies and reorder when they
wear out or disappear. The company, which he says has revenues of over $1
million, was recently sold to Urban Books. based in West Babylon, on Long
Island. Q-Boro has already published 100 books, including “The Moanin’ After” by
L. M. Ross, with a gay theme that Mr. Anthony says reflects Queens’ diversity,
and Mr. Anthony’s coming “Queen Bee” — renamed after Wal-Mart balked at the
original title, “Promiscuous Girl.”
At the Far Rockaway library, one of the busiest spots on the neighborhood’s
faded commercial strip, a stream of commuters heads to the urban fiction shelf
at the end of the workday. The head librarian there, Sharon Anderson, who said
she grew up on Mr. Goines and was now obsessed with spy novels, says some
readers start with urban fiction and branch out to histories of the civil rights
movement, or to “The Godfather.” Sometimes she recommends something harder: “If
you want sex, dirt and murder, read Shakespeare! We have the CliffsNotes!”
Urban fiction has influenced a generation of library staffers, too. Down the
street at a special library branch for teenagers, the librarian Sandra Michele
Echols wrote her bachelor’s thesis at New York University comparing street lit
to slave narratives.
Barbara Orlandi, a lifelong Far Rockaway resident who was checking out “Little
Black Girl Lost II,” said she moved out of the Redfern housing project at age 11
and has not gone back since. But she reads about the dangerous life she
remembers — some books even mention specific Far Rockaway streets — on her
subway rides to her night shift as an AirTrain dispatcher.
“It actually helps you to understand what’s going on around you,” she said,
“instead of walking around blind.”
It's Not Because of Books;
They're 'Memory Rooms'
Or TV-Free Private Spaces
September 12, 2008
The Wall Street Journal
By JUNE FLETCHER
In the library of her 5,800-square-foot house in Glen Cove, N.Y., Linda
Teitelbaum keeps trophies from dog shows, needlepoint pillows of bulldogs and
gold-framed photos of family. Though the plaid-papered room has a scattering of
books, she often retreats to it not just to read but to remember the dogs she
used to breed, to nap, or to get away from the TV. "It's my veg-out room," Ms.
Reading rates are down and Americans say they love casual living. And yet, one
of the most popular rooms in big new houses is a library. Rather than being
about books, their appeal is often about creating a certain ambiance. "Libraries
connote elegance and quality," says New York architect and interior designer
Campion Platt, adding that most of his wealthy clients want one, even if they do
most of their reading online.
Libraries have become so fashionable that this month, talk-show host Oprah
Winfrey featured the one in her Santa Barbara, Calif., home on the cover of her
magazine; it contains first editions collected for her by a rare-book dealer.
In the latest annual National Association of Home Builders consumer survey, 63%
of home buyers said they wanted a library or considered one essential, a
percentage that has been edging up for the past few years. Many mass-market home
builders are including libraries in their house plans, sometimes with retro
touches like rolling ladders and circular stairs.
A RETURN TO THE CLASSIC
Jeani Ziering, an interior designer in Manhasset, N.Y., says the newfound
popularity of libraries is part of a general movement toward traditional design
and décor. "When the economy turns bad, people turn to the classics," she says.
Libraries are especially appealing during anxious times because they project
coziness and comfort, she adds.
The Journal's June Fletcher discusses the resurgence of libraries.What can make
libraries more soothing than other formal rooms isn't so much books but the
framed family photographs, awards and mementos that share the shelves and define
a family's interests and identity, says McLean, Va., architect Chris Lessard.
"They're memory rooms," he says. Because libraries are public rooms, oftentimes
the books are purely decorative and don't say as much about the family who lives
there. The books that people really read, like paperback novels and how-to
guides, often are kept out of sight elsewhere in the home.
Even in a downturn, U.S. adult hardcover and paperback book sales reached $16.6
billion last year, a slight increase from the year before, according to the Book
Industry Study Group, a New York trade group. But crammed schedules and the Web
have slashed the amount of time people spend reading books. According to the
National Endowment for the Arts, 5% of Americans said they read literature in
2002, the latest survey data available, down from 14% in 1992.
HIS AND HERS LIBRARIES
Still, some homeowners are book lovers. Michael Burkitt and his wife, Roberta,
own an estimated 9,000 books, all hardbound, which they keep in two formal
libraries in their new, 5,800-square-foot home in Reno, Nev., and their
3,800-square-foot vacation house in Newport Coast, Calif. Mr. Burkitt, 65, the
recently retired co-owner of a structural-plastics firm, says he's been too busy
working most of his life to read even a fraction of them. But he enjoys relaxing
among them in what he considers his "sanctuaries" -- one paneled in dark wood,
the other in white -- free from distractions like computers. "They're the wombs
of my homes," he says.
Tucson, Ariz., interior designer Terri Taylor says she spends a lot of time
scouring flea markets and bookstores for books with fancy bindings for her
clients' bookshelves. She selects books to match color schemes rather than for
their content. She once was ecstatic to find a stash of beautiful, leather-bound
books at the bargain price of $20 apiece -- never mind that they were written in
German, a language her clients didn't read. "I bought cases of them," she says.
For home builders who are scaling back the size of houses to make them more
affordable and cheaper to construct, libraries are a more functional way to
create an upscale look than the "old, crazy massive foyers and 'Gone With the
Wind' staircases," that characterized houses a few years ago, says Memphis,
Tenn., architect Carson Looney.
In some mass-market builders' plans, libraries are replacing dens, which have
become redundant in the age of huge family rooms. A home plan called the
Monterey Mediterranean offered by Toll Brothers, of Horsham, Pa., has 5,183
square feet, and includes a family room and a library with double glass doors
off the foyer -- but has no den.
Neither does the 4,289-square-foot Blue Harbor Plan 4 house that John Laing
Homes of Irvine, Calif., sells for nearly $1.3 million in San Juan Capistrano,
Calif. In addition to a wine room and a family room with fireplace, it puts a
library on a landing between the first and second floors, which allows the
ceiling height to be extended for more bookshelf space.
Of course, selling built-in bookshelves is a way for builders to pump up their
bottom lines, especially if buyers choose custom-made shelving in exotic woods
and frills such as secret doors hidden in paneling. About half the clients of
London Bay, a Naples, Fla., builder whose prices start at just under $1 million,
order such upgrades, at a cost ranging from $30,000 to $300,000. Lately, says
Mark Wilson, the builder's chief executive officer and president, there's even
been demand for "his and hers" libraries for spouses who like to keep their
books, collections and alone-time separate.
JAY MCINERNEY'S PHILOSOPHY
Some builders are also creating mini-libraries scattered throughout the house.
Popular spots are under the stairs, in lofts, in alcoves near master bedrooms
and along entry hallways. Gary Stefanoni, senior executive vice president of
Orleans Homebuilders in Bensalem, Pa., says that for the past few years, he's
seen demand for bookcases in children's playrooms, since kids often have more
books, trophies and collections than their parents do. "They want to display
them in their own space," he says.
Dan Poag, a shopping-center developer, is putting a dedicated library and
built-in bookcases in nearly every room of the 10,000-square-foot house he's
building in Memphis. He doesn't know how many books he owns -- he estimates
several thousand -- but has kept nearly everything he's purchased since college,
as well as his three grown sons' college textbooks, a collection of science
fiction, and children's books that his five grandchildren read when they visit.
Since nearly every wall of his current house is filled with books, his decorator
urged him to re-cover them so their multicolored spines wouldn't clash with the
décor. He refused. "The books are my priority," he says.
Similarly, author Jay McInerney and his wife, Anne Hearst, happily mix dog-eared
paperbacks with first editions of Fitzgerald and Joyce in the overstuffed
bookcases of both their Manhattan apartment and their Hamptons house. Mr.
McInerney thinks the visual jumble of thousands of mismatched books is
appealing. "If you're not reading what's on your bookshelves, you should find
something else to decorate with," he says.
COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) -- Twelve major universities will digitize select collections
in each of their libraries -- up to 10 million volumes -- as part of Google
Inc.'s book-scanning project. The goal: a shared digital repository that
faculty, students and the public can access quickly.
The partnership involves the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which
includes the University of Chicago and the 11 universities in the Big Ten
athletic conference (yes, there are 11): Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan,
Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and
''We have a collective ambition to share resources and work together to preserve
the world's printed treasures,'' said Northwestern Provost Lawrence Dumas.
The committee said Google will scan and index materials ''in a manner consistent
with copyright law.'' Google generally makes available the full text of books in
the public domain and limited portions of copyrighted books.
Several other universities, including Harvard and California, already have
signed up to let Google scan their libraries. But Google still faces a lawsuit
by the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild over its plans
to incorporate parts of copyrighted books.