Diane Ackerman, acclaimed author of A Natural History of the Senses, will be appearing at the Central Library's Montgomery Auditorium this Thursday, September 20, at 8:00 p.m. (Click here to buy tickets online.) Ackerman's new book, The Zookeeper's Wife, was just released this month; it's a narrative nonfiction account of one of the most successful hideouts of World War II, the Warsaw Zoo. Ms. Ackerman recently took a few minutes to chat with us about some of our favorite topics.
What role have libraries played in your life?
Believe it or not, there were very few books in my home when I was growing up in Waukegan, Illinois. And the library was a long bus ride away. That made the library's bookmobile so precious. By the time I was in third grade, I knew where to find heroes, monsters, and other worlds between covers, in a friendly little cave with wheels--the Bookmobile--which stopped only two blocks from my house. Outside, it looked like an unassuming trailer or bus, but inside the walls were lined with colorful books that smelled of wood shavings, silver polish, and dust, just like a real library. It had solid wooden shelves, a card catalogue, and moveable steps for reaching the higher books. I couldn't reach them anyway, since the steps only added three feet to me, but the children's books were shelved at ground level, so I could sit on the carpet and choose among half a dozen to adopt. One of the things I liked best about the Bookmobile was the 12" by 8" cream-colored cardboard print of a suitcase named "World Traveler" that I got the first day I started taking out books. Every week I received a new stamp to put on my suitcase, beginning with a pink one of a Bookmobile driving down a country lane, then one of Norway, India, South America, Africa, Spain, Holland, U.S.S.R., Sweden, Scotland. Somewhere along the line, I earned a blue satin ribbon that said "Reading Achievement Award," which the librarian stapled to my suitcase with a flourish. I especially liked the thin colorful books with gold spines in which Santa rode his sleigh across the sky or Pinocchio danced. My love of books began there, in that slender kingdom on wheels.
What made you think you could be a writer?
When I was a freshman at Boston University, majoring in biopsychology, I transferred schools, and the computer put me in English by mistake. Since I had been writing shyly but enthusiastically every since I was little, I considered it fate.
Who are the three authors you think everyone should be required to read--which books would you start with?
Only three books? Well, this morning I'd choose The Velveteen Rabbit, The Tempest, and something by Virginia Woolf. This afternoon, who knows... I have so many beloved books in so many disciplines.
If you couldn’t write, what other job would you like to have?
If I couldn't be an author, I'd probably be a Buddhist monk. Poets and monks both pay detailed loving attention to the world. Carpe diem.