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Biblio File

What If? Adventures in Possibilities


"The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over, and then expecting different results."

This quotation has been everywhere lately, and is often attributed to Einstein, although there’s no evidence that he ever said it. It does, however, illustrate the importance of change. If you find yourself on the cusp of a change in your life, sometimes books are a good way to explore different careers, lifestyles, whatever, without necessarily committing to a permanent change. Libraries are a great way to explore the "what ifs" in your life or to ponder "what ifs" in history.

Purple hairstreak butterfly., Digital ID 1201318, New York Public Library

Many creative writing exercises begin with one person starting a story and others taking it whatever direction they choose. As avid comic book readers might remember, Marvel had a series called “What if...” wherein a little bald guy called the Watcher observed alternate Marvel universes, and of course there are the Choose-your-own-adventure books, which the Library still collects.

Recently, the New York Times wrote an article about Vladimir Nabokov’s enduring scientific work with butterflies. What if he had devoted more time to becoming a naturalist than to writing? Would we still have such enduring works as Lolita and The Gift?

The following books look at "what ifs":

  • in history, edited by Robert Cowley.
  • A recent fiction novel, Mr. Toppit, by Charles Elton, explores the life of a children's author and his franchise of Harry Potter-esque proportions. Arthur Hayman, a successful author, is hit by a passing cement truck in London and must fully convey to his successor about his children’s book series, The Hayseed Chronicles, and the central figure in them, Mr. Toppit. The book spans decades. In recounting his story, he encounters lots of choices he could have made about his family and media empire.
  • The Ada Poems, by Cynthia Zarin—a poetry collection "inspired and inhabited by the title character of Nabokov’s novel Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, who was the lifelong love of her half brother. [...] set in a Nabokovian landscape of memory in which real places, people, and things—the exploration of the Hudson River, Edwardian London, sunflowers, Chekhov, Harlem, decks of cards, the death of Solzhenitsyn, morpho butterflies—collide with the speaker’s own tale of desire and loss." (source)


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