Librarian's guide to what A-list like between covers

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Asked to name their favourite books, most celebrities seem to have followed the advice of the American writer P J O'Rourke: "Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it."

For 13 years Glenna Nowell, a retired librarian from Gardiner, Maine (pop 6,746), has exchanged letters with famous people to get a picture of their reading matter and to encourage her own town to read.

She began when her budget and stock - some 4,500 books - were so small the locals had to wait weeks for bestsellers. Dr Nowell said: "I thought, 'How can I get them to read something wonderful we already have on our shelves?' "

So she solicited recommendations from subjects as diverse as Tony Blair and Tony Curtis, Hugh Hefner and Martina Navratilova. Their reading matter and often their accompanying letters are on the Gardiner Public Library website.

Perhaps because Dr Nowell is a librarian, some admissions were surprisingly frank. In this year's list, released yesterday,the X-Files actress Gillian Anderson picked the self-help tome When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron.

David Bowie said: "I read something like three books a week, so trimming down became an exceptionally daunting prospect."

He nominated six books, including Night at the Circus, by Angela Carter, and Money, by Martin Amis, and, rather sweetly, asked for Dr Nowell's opinion of his choices.

Some selections were surprisingly political. As well as fiction, Julie Christie picked "anything by Noam Chomsky", "because each [book] serves to further uncover the fog of disinformation with which governments and multinationals obscure their reasons for their actions."

Politicians apparently make their choices as uncontroversial as possible. Tony Blair, new this year to the list, said that he enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien, so much that he reads it to his children.

He also nominated Ivanhoe, by Walter Scott and Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Al Gore, who may soon become President of the United States, took this trend a step further, selecting Mr Popper's Penguins, by Richard and Florence Atwater. Bill Clinton professed to read 70 fiction and non-fiction books a year. He was taught to read by his grandfather, he told Dr Nowell, and his "first and favourite" books were the Dick and Jane readers. As an adult he particularly enjoyed Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude.

Predictably, some books made repeat appearances. Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead was the choice of a diverse range of public figures, including Navratilova and Hefner, while The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald, was the favourite of both Jackie Collins and Anthony Hopkins.

Dr Nowell said: "We label our library books with the names of the figures who have nominated them. You'd be surprised at some of the people who end up next to each other."

Many nominated their own works. In Simon Wiesenthal's case, this was "to describe what has been my main concern for more than half my life, i.e., getting Nazi criminals to answer for themselves in a court of law". In Curtis's case there was a more frivolous reason. He nominated Tony Curtis, the Autobiography, by Tony Curtis, because "I couldn't wait to see how it ends".

The lists are available on www.gpl.lib.me.us

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