Few people could identify a Pulitzer Prize-winning author by his voice, except for David McCullough, with his plain-spoken baritone with just a hint of a croak in it that has accompanied so many PBS programs. He spoke recently at the annual Literary Lights dinner, a fund-raiser for the Associates of the Boston Public Library, an independent organization dedicated to conserving the library’s special collections of rare books and manuscripts.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
MCCULLOUGH: I’ve been reading mostly in preparation for my new book about the Wright brothers, mostly letters numbering in the thousands between the brothers, their father, and sister. They were interested in everything. The brothers didn’t just know just about aeronautical engineering. They knew about art, music, novels, and poetry. Their father was a minister. They didn’t have much money and had no electricity or plumbing in the house but they had a lot of books. Other than that, I’m reading “Bringing up Bébé” by Pamela Druckerman about how differently French children are brought up. It’s terrific.
BOOKS: How’d you come across that?
MCCULLOUGH: My son Bill recommended it. When I’m reading for my own pleasure, I read things other than history or archival material. I read a lot of fiction. I’m very fond of mysteries. I read everything Ruth Rendell writes. I’m a big Elmore Leonard fan. I love to reread books. I recently reread “The Moviegoer” by Walker Percy and it was just as good as ever. I’m an Anthony Trollope nut. I push his books on everyone.
BOOKS: What’s your favorite?
MCCULLOUGH: “The Way We Live Now.” All you have to do is change the names and places and it could be about people we’ve heard about in the last five years. He knew all about Bernie Madoff before Bernie Madoff ever happened. I also love his autobiography. I love autobiographies in general. I love “The Education of Henry Adams.”
BOOKS: Were books important in your childhood?
MCCULLOUGH: On Christmas morning when I was a child, my mother would leave a book wrapped at the foot of the bed, which was a hint that Santa had come. It was also her way of keeping us in bed a little longer before we went downstairs. So I’ve always associated books with happiness and gifts. And they are. I can’t get enough of them.
BOOKS: Did you grow up using the library?
MCCULLOUGH: Yes the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the mother of all Carnegie libraries. The library, the gallery and natural history museum are all under the same roof. You can walk out of the library and go to the art gallery. There were no divisions and you got the idea that there shouldn’t be. It’s all part of learning.
I think the public library system is one of the most amazing American institutions. Free for everybody. If you ever get the blues about the status of American culture there are still more public libraries than there are McDonald’s. During the worst of the Depression not one public library closed their doors.
BOOKS: How did attending Yale University change you as a reader?
MCCULLOUGH: I wrote my senior paper on the novelist Richard Wright. I was at Yale when people like Robert Penn Warren and Thornton Wilder were there. You could talk to them, have lunch with them. It was thrilling. We had to read one hell of a lot. It was a great privilege. Changed my life. Books can change your life. Some of the most influential people in our lives are characters we meet in books.
BOOKS: Who has that been for you?
MCCULLOUGH: Richard Henry Dana in his autobiography “Two Years Before the Mast,” the first book I ever bought with my own money. All of the main characters in Robert Lewis Stevenson’s books. Later Sayward Luckett, the main character in Conrad Richter’s trilogy “The Awakening Land.”
BOOKS: Any book you’ve always meant to read?
MCCULLOUGH: Oh boy, is there ever. Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” and don’t you tell anyone.