The Writing Life: A Chat with Patrick Coleman
Patrick Coleman has a secret. “Someday, someone will find out that I’m having too much fun,” he whispers hoarsely from behind his hand.
OK, so maybe he actually said that in a normal, good-natured voice with his hands folded comfortably in front of him, but, you know, we like to embellish once in a while. But that fun he’s having too much of? That’s no embellishment. As the Acquisitions Librarian at the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS), Coleman spends his days finding and acquiring books about Minnesota history and culture. Clearly, it’s a labor of love.
His love of books started as a child, thanks to parents who loved to read, and particularly his father, who took a special interest in Minnesota history. He recalls traveling around the state on family vacations, armed with the WPA’s 1938 Minnesota: A State Guide. They would pull into a new town like Anoka, and his dad would pass the book around, instructing Coleman and his siblings to open to the section about Anoka and read aloud.
In his college years, Coleman worked at MINITEX (Minnesota Inter-Library Teletype Exchange), where twice a week, he would take a bus down to the old historical society building (which was then right next to the Capitol). “I would go into the old curator’s office, shut the door, turn on the lights, and look [at all the books].” Someday, he wanted that guy’s job.
In a nutshell: he got it.
Fast forward 30-plus years, and he still lives and breathes Minnesota books. At MNHS, his job is “not only to acquire the material, but also to promote [it].” To that end, Coleman has embraced social media: he’s on Twitter (@PKColeman), for one. He tries to tweet about at least one book that he acquires for MNHS per day. His hope is this: “If anybody followed me, which of course they don’t, they’ll realize what a resource MNHS is.”
He’s also a blogger, curator of the blog, 150 Best Minnesota Books.
It was an idea that began percolating years ago, when he noticed that there wasn’t a “Best of Minnesota” bibliography, or anything of the sort for booksellers. He asked around, and dealers encouraged him to compile one. “I spent a long time thinking about it,” he said. After he felt he had worked at the MNHS long enough, “I took 100 blank notecards home with me, kept them by my bed. Every night, I’d think of 10, 15, 20 books before I went to bed.”
And there the notecards sat, until the Minnesota Sesquicentennial came around in 2008, and everyone and their cousin were pulling together lists of “150 Best” Minnesotan things. So Patrick thought to himself, “Why don’t I use my list of 100 books?” With 150 books, he’d then have “some growing room,” and 150 Best Minnesota Books was born.
What’s on the list so far? “I wanted to have some books that people will know, like The Great Gatsby, but also introduce people to books that have been lost to history, that people don’t know about,” says Coleman. He’s looking to build a list that shows the “depth and breadth of not only Minnesota history, but also its culture.”
Sometimes he wonders at the audacity necessary to compile such a definitive list. “It’s pretty arrogant to say I can just list these things,” but, then again, “there is no other human being around who’s spent more time thinking about Minnesota books.” We’re inclined to agree. But he’s not above asking for help (see below for more details).
His criteria for what constitutes a place on the “Best” list is “a combination of a lot of things. Sometimes it’s the physical quality of a book.” For example, when choosing which Patricia Hampl book to include, he ultimately chose a fine press book published by Milkweed Editions, because the book itself was so gorgeous.
Some other guidelines? “It can be a foundation book, like William Watts Folwell’s A History of Minnesota, […] or a canonical book like Main Street.” Or, it “can also just be an important lost piece of Minnesota.”
Does he have a favorite book? “Every book I’ve listed so far I’ve really liked. Some are more necessary while some are more fun,” including some science fiction and mysteries that aren’t usually seen on more “serious” trade bibliographies. “Frankly, I’m having fun with it. It’s just a gas.”
Want to get in on the fun? Here are two ways:
2) Come to the Twin Cities Antiquarian & Rare Book Fair this Friday and Saturday (June 29–30), at the MN State Fairgrounds. There you can browse over 60 stalls of books, with prices ranging from $35,000 to $2, and start your own book collection. (Even to just to be in the presence of a rare Fitzgerald or Sinclair Lewis edition! Squeals!) Even better, Coleman himself will be there, if you’d like to present a case for your favorite Minnesota book in person. See you there?