The Friends of the Library (FOL)'s 37th Annual Book and Author Luncheon featured two great cities: Delphi and Venice. The speakers were William J. Broad, New York Times senior science writer, and author of The Oracle: The Last Secrets and Hidden Messages of Ancient Delphi, and John Berendt, author of The City of Falling Angels.
Broad opened by commenting, "The library is the heart and soul of the community and it is organizations like this [the FOL] that give it power." He went on to say, "I am basically going to tell you the story behind the story, and how I came to write this book." He told the audience that this book, like most of the other six he has authored or co-authored, grew out of a New York Times story. In general, he said, the motivation to write a book comes out of a desire to dig deeper into a subject, without the pressure of newspaper deadlines.
This particular story, which appeared in the March 19, 2002 New York Times, was prompted by an article in the journal Geology reporting that a team of scientists had produced "a wealth of evidence" supporting the explanation that the ancient Greeks had given for the visions and prophecies of the Oracle at Delphi. The Greeks maintained that vapors emanating from the temple floor gave rise to the trances and frenzies from which the Oracles' inspired utterances derived. [Editor's note: The Oracle was not one person, but many, over the course of 12 centuries.] Modern science had long discounted the legend, maintaining that there was no fissure, no fumes and no vapor. Therefore, they called into question the entire legend of the Oracle at Delphi, concluding that most likely the priests and the Oracle were conspiring to deceive the public.
The new discovery suggested that it was probable, as Broad wrote, "that the ancients had it exactly right." The team discovered that under the temple were two faults that crossed and allowed fumes to come up into the temple. Broad said, "I thought this would make a great story." He began to investigate, and became fascinated both by the story and by one of the chief researchers, geologist Jelle Zellinga de Boer, whom he described as "one of the most interesting people I've met." Broad said, "It was clear from the beginning that this is a book. So I went into my 'two-job thing', getting up early to work on the book.
The implication of these findings for de Boer, and subsequently for Broad, was the questioning of the "reductionist" model; that is that everything around us can be reduced to a simple scientific explanation. Broad asked rhetorically, "Is there more than science can explain? What lies beyond?" He said, "I took this as a case study of the questions that lie beyond science. "A self-described skeptic, Broad said, "I have an open mind about this [psychic] stuff. To me the oracle became what lies beyond science." He added, "Long story short, I have an open mind again."
Broad has twice won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as an Emmy. His previous book, Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War was a number one New York Times bestseller. The Oracle has been well received by the critics, some of whom FOL President Amy Bass cited in her introduction. She summed them all up by saying, "This is a terrific book."
John Berendt is well known for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which was on The New York Times bestseller list for four years, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and was made into a movie. The son of two writers, he told the listeners that he grew up reading the classics. He said, "My mother [Carolyn Sher] showed me that everyday life could be written down and published." It was natural, perhaps inevitable, that Berendt has pursued the writer's life. In college he was an editor of the Harvard Lampoon. He worked at Esquire in the sixties when, he said, "the 'New Journalism' was being created by the great writers like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese." He explained, "It was writing in a clipped journalistic way, writing as if it were a fictional piece." It was this style that Berendt used in writing both books, which are classified as non-fiction, but which read like novels.
Berendt's motivation for writing the both books was similar to Broad's: the desire to explore a subject more extensively. In addition, he said, "I noticed that magazines were thrown away." (Berendt was an editor for The New Yorker, wrote a weekly column for Esquire for many years, and is a frequent contributor to other publications.) He added, "I wanted to have something to show for it."
Berendt enjoyed the years he spent in Savannah researching Midnight. He said, "Southerners are fascinating. They don't give information, they tell stories." As an example, he said, "In New York we write, 'Before going out, Mrs. Jones put on her coat.' In Savannah, it would be, 'Before going out, Mrs. Jones put on the coat that her third husband gave her just before he committed suicide.'" He commented, "Southerners are more fun than the rest of us. Their creations are their own lives. People in Savannah love eccentrics." This background, Berendt said, "is a godsend to someone who wants to write a story."
After the success of his first book, Berendt said, "I was casting about for something to write." In analyzing what made that book work, he decided that it was because it was about a beautiful, magical city that was totally isolated from the rest of the area. He asked himself, "What other city is like that?" Venice came to mind, but many writers had written about that city. He quoted Henry James, who commented more than 100 years ago, "There is notoriously nothing new to be said about Venice." Berendt said, "I didn't turn away because of this. Their observations have been about the city. I was going to write about the people who live there." In Venice, as in Savannah, Berendt found an interesting variety of eccentric characters. He described it as follows. "Venice is like a stage set. You think you are in the middle of a play, and so do the people who live there." Two of the more interesting characters he mentioned are a man who made a fortune selling rat poison on the international market, and another who dressed up in a different uniform every day. The characters are played out in a theme based on the fire that destroyed the Fenice, the jewel of European opera houses, in 1996. (Berendt happened to arrive in Venice a few days after the fire.)
Berendt said, "The reaction in Venice was mixed, but mostly favorable." He said that the book gave the Venice International Foundation an idea to restore the angels in St. Mark's Basilica and to call the project 'Angels Will Fly Again.'" He was invited to be a guest of the foundation at their inauguration concert.
Berendt told his listeners about his approach to writing. "I am a slow writer," he said. "I can't go beyond a paragraph until I am reasonably happy with it." He will sometimes call his answering machine and read parts of the book aloud to check out how it sounds." In response to a question, he said that he speaks Italian, and that he tape recorded all the interviews to be sure he had them right.
Amy Bass welcomed the guests, who included FOL board members, library and foundation trustees, staff, and, as usual, an English teacher and two students from Schreiber. She extended a special greeting to Ed and Dot Slade, who have given so generously to the library and to other community organizations and events. Bass said that the FOL is planning a special commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the luncheon, which was renamed the Richard D. Whittemore Book and Author Luncheon in 2000, in memory of the founder and president of the Friends of the Port Washington Library.