Friday night, Neil Gaiman joked about burning down the New York Public Library. He was dressed as a dead Charles Dickens (because #Halloween) and lighting candles to properly set the mood so he could read a selection from his new book, a graphic retelling of the Grimm Brothers’ Hansel & Gretel. The book is illustrated beautifully by Lorenzo Mattotti, and Gaiman was slated to read from it and have a talk with Live From The NYPL organizer Paul Holdengräber. What followed was a 90-minute treat for any reader and lover of books set to candlelight and more than one callback to the impending torching of the library.
While I could talk endlessly about the setting, the story of Hansel & Gretel and all the ways that Gaiman has brought the old fairytale back to life, what was most special about this particular evening was the conversation Gaiman and Holdengräber had between two short readings. It is his habit, or so he told us, for Holdengräber to ask his guests for a short bio – only 7 or 8 words, and when Gaiman sent him “boy inhabited books; man learns from boy” as his short bio, the course of the evening was set.
Seriously, for a total bookworm like myself, getting the chance to sit in the dark and listen to Gaiman talk about books, reading and how vital they were and continue to be to him was pretty much the perfect way to spend Halloween. Telling the audience of his early addiction to the written word and what drove him to read at a very young age, he told us of having to learn because “adults were unreliable” so if he wanted the stories, he had to be able to get them himself. What drew more than a little laughter from the crowd was his recollection of how he viewed librarians as a child: “I was terrified of them at first. They were the people who wanted their books back.”
“If I could convince the matron that I had a headache, I was given an aspirin and a glass of water, and I was sent to the library for an hour so it could go away,” he told the audience of his early methods of getting out of class and into the library. This seemed to be a theme – all the methods to get more books into his brain were ingenious, and he was not above stealing from his own savings account to finance his comic book habit as he admitted – for the first time – the truth of what happened to his Bar Mitzvah money.
If you ever get the chance to see Gaiman speak on the subject of reading and books, take it. There is something utterly delightful about hearing him say, “adults are full of shit,” when talking about age-appropriate books and reviewers, and a great deal of comfort can come from hearing him tell the interviewer, “There is no wrong way to find something that you love,” about the same subject.
Here’s the whole event on video if you’d like to experience it all for yourself. I think I’m going to have to run out today and pick up a copy of Hansel & Gretel to usher in November.
All images via Sarah Stacke/The New York Public Library