American Writers on Displays

The Newberry Library in Chicago hosted a 25-hour Moby-Dick Readathon recently. After opening remarks by National Book Award-winner Nathaniel Philbrick, the reading proper got underway, and I jumped ship for a time to have a look at another Chicago celebration of writers, the American Writers Museum.

Oddly, the AWM is the first national museum to honor American writers, and it opened only 18 months ago. The founder is Malcolm O’Hagan, who immigrated from Ireland in 1969. He was an engineer, got a doctorate, and served as Chairman of the Board of the Council of Manufacturing Associations, among other achievements.

O’Hagan felt the US really got him reading, and he had seen other museums, abroad, devoted to writers. He decided he would create his own for the US, with the mission to “help people understand the power of the word, how much it influences our culture and identity as a nation.” He raised $10 million in startup funds from private donors.

“It has to be spectacular or not at all,” O’Hagan told the publication Irish America.

But a decision was made not to invest in new architecture, so the museum is in a drab office building on Michigan Avenue, above a 5 Guys Burgers and Fries. The lobby smelled of sautéed onions and raw sewage the day I was there. One of the two security guards said, What do you need, Bud?, and when I asked for the museum he pointed to the elevators and said it was on the second floor. It was a good start for a reflection on America’s esteem for writers.

As an engineer, O’Hagan might be expected to believe technology will best help visitors understand the power of the word.

“Malcolm feels that by using technology to create an interactive experience, people will truly get to know the featured writers and appreciate how their work reflects—and impacts—society,” his alma mater’s magazine says.

“From the outset, we set up a few principles,” O’Hagan tells them. “We don’t want to be an archive or a collection of artifacts—that’s already been done. We see ourselves as the presentation arm of literary America, telling stories about great writers and their works.”

The stories do not come through strongly. The technology in the 11,000-square foot museum is what registers, and it ranges from typewriters visitors can use, to a large table display on which digitized refrigerator-poetry magnets can be rearranged. A long touchscreen provides basic information on various literary works, in the manner of SparkNotes. Factoids abound. Words digitally cascade down a wall like water. A digital version of the On the Road typewriter scroll permits searches.

The most human aspect of the museum may be the visiting writers series, which in 2018 hosted Viet Thanh Nguyen, Tayari Jones, and Martin Amis, among dozens. But the lingering impression of the rest is mostly that of a big device, on which you can read about literature.

The Washington Post visited shortly after the museum opened and asked in their headline, “Where are the books?” The museum’s director of operations told them, “Books can be kind of stale. We’re trying to bring them back to life.”

O’Hagan said, “I’m not a good reader. I miss a lot of stuff. I don’t get the deeper meanings.”

His co-founder said, “I could [not] care less about books. It’s not the book that drives me. It’s the writing that drives me.”

Well. Among other things, this reduces “book” to a mere outdated mode of technology.

Is it right to say I left the museum depressed? Bored, even, with the word? I felt, I think, for the very first time that I could understand young people who tell me they do not like books or reading.

I went down to the 5 Guys and ate a sick greasy burger and sat remembering books I love, and trips to the library since I was little, and time spent in archives in the thrill of discovery, and cherished visits to writers’ homes, from Hemingway’s in Key West to Chekhov’s estate at Melikhovo. Then I headed back over to the Moby-Dick Readathon, where people were reading aloud words, written 170 years ago, from a book.

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