The funny thing about priceless works of art is that they’re not priceless at all. Restoring and preserving rare books and one-of-a-kind prints, paintings, and photographs is expensive.
So it was a problem when the group responsible for safeguarding the Boston Public Library’s Special Collections was forced by the pandemic to cancel its annual fund-raiser. Known as Literary Lights, the black-tie benefit at the Park Plaza Hotel typically raises $400,000 to help conserve and digitize the library’s many treasures.
“Time will erode everything, including John Adams’s library,” says author William Martin, vice chair of the Associates of the Boston Public Library, referring to one of the jewels of the Special Collections. “This year, the Associates faced the same challenge that nonprofits around town and around the globe faced: a loss of income.”
But after a bit of brainstorming, the Associates came up with an inventive alternative to their usual fancy fund-raiser, whose tickets cost $600 apiece. They asked some of the authors honored at past Literary Lights galas if they would do Zoom calls with fans. The virtual conversations, and other donated items, will be auctioned starting Oct. 16.
“I was completely flabbergasted that almost everyone said yes,” says Wendy Ballinger, the Associates' director of development.
Among the writers who’ll Zoom with readers are Amor Towles, best-selling author of “A Gentleman in Moscow”; Lois Lowry, author of the influential dystopian YA novel “The Giver”; Harvard historian and author Jill Lepore; Gregory Maguire, whose novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” inspired the hit Broadway musical; and Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former US ambassador to the United Nations.
Additional auction items include signed copies of books from Nathaniel Philbrick’s Revolutionary War series; an original work by celebrated New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast; a copy of the first “Downton Abbey” script signed and inscribed by the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes; and a pencil portrait of the high bidder by novelist Nicholson Baker.
Many of the writers said they’re happy to help the BPL because libraries played a critical role in their development. Lowry, for example, who grew up in the central Pennsylvania college town of Carlisle, said her family was Presbyterian, but “my real religion was the public library” around the corner from her house.
Not long ago, Lowry said, she returned to Carlisle to speak at the Bosler Memorial Library, where she spent so much time as a child but had not visited for several decades.
“I remembered it almost like a Greek temple, with 100 marble steps, and when I went back, there were 10 cement steps,” she says. “It had been a place with other people, and an austere librarian, who valued the same things I did. It was a place where I felt very much at home and also in awe of it.”
Likewise, growing up in Albany, N.Y., Maguire said his local library was a sanctuary of sorts, serving as “proctor, muse, and baby sitter.”
“There aren’t many places where children are as welcome as adults, but the library is one,” he says.
Many of the authors have agreed to do a Zoom call for between six and 12 people. The virtual get-togethers — bids start at $500 — are intended to be conversations, not lectures, though in some cases there’s a suggested topic. According to the auction catalog, Min Jin Lee will entertain questions about the provocative first sentence of her acclaimed 2017 novel “Pachinko”: “History has failed us, but no matter.”
The Associates of the BPL have been around for years, but raising money for the restoration and preservation of the Special Collections became its mission more recently at the urging of historian David McCullough, a former BPL trustee who burrowed deeply into the archives while writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “John Adams” and, later, “1776.”
“I like to call what the Associates do ‘the work of the ages,’” says Martin, who’s written several best-selling historical thrillers.
There’s something for everyone in the Special Collections, including manuscripts, maps, photos, fine art, and books. A few of the pearls are the papers of William Lloyd Garrison and his personal copies of his abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator,” as well as letters from Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth; the first collected edition of Shakespeare, published in 1623, seven years after the Bard’s death; 90 prints and drawings by M.C. Escher, the Dutch draftsman and printmaker known for his uncanny images depicting infinity; and two first editions of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” containing 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of bird portraits.
Some of the other writers contributing to the Associates auction are Jeff Kinney, Jane Mayer, Joseph Finder, Geraldine Brooks, Susan Faludi, and Susan Orlean, who’s donating an inscribed mini-library of “must reads.”
Orlean’s latest work, “The Library Book,” tells the story of the catastrophic fire that raged through the stacks of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, destroying 400,000 books and damaging 700,000 more. She’s delighted to be able to help the BPL preserve its collection.
“Going to the library with my mom was one of my foundational childhood experiences,” Orlean says. “It’s not just a fond memory. It’s an important one.”
Mark Shanahan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.