By Joseph Pauletto
Boston University News Service
Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is the recipient of the Associates of the Boston Public Library Hundred-Year Retroactive Book Award, an annual event which highlights the best book published a century ago.
The 2023 Retroactive Book Award, voted upon by both in-person and online audiences, saw Gibran’s collection of poetic essays best competitors Felix Salten’s Bambi and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Links. The event, which took place February 8, was hosted by Boston radio personality Kennedy Elsey and featured three presenters representing each book nominee in an open forum debate.
Historian Paul Wright, who presented on behalf of The Prophet, says that Gibran’s work is representative of Boston literature.
“There is a case to be made that The Prophet is as much a Boston book, where the author was shaped, as a New York book where it was edited and published, or a Lebanese book where it has its roots,” Wright said.
Kahlil Gibran was born in Lebanon in 1883, and immigrated to Boston’s South End neighborhood as a child. While studying in Boston, Gibran often visited the Boston Public Library which is now memorialized outside its doors on Dartmouth St.
During Wright’s presentation, he introduced Jean Gibran, Kahlil Gibran’s cousin who attended the event. Jean Gibran co-authored her cousin’s biography, Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World, with her late husband in 1974.
After receiving a standing ovation during Wright’s presentation, Gibran, 89, rejoiced when The Prophet was announced as the winner.
“I can’t believe it,” Gibran exclaimed with her friends sitting next to her, “I just can’t believe it!”
Despite losing to The Prophet, Harvard professor Maria Tartar, who represented Felix Salten’s Bambi in the debate, argues that the book, which inspired the famous Disney film, is significant due to its brutal imagery of death inspired by World War I.
“Bambi, as you’ve figured out, is a dark and enigmatic text,” Tartar said. “It is not for children at all. It is littered with corpses.”
Mystery author Julie Hennrikus, who spoke for Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Links, says that Christie does not get the acclaim she deserves for her writing style and character development because the mystery genre is not as revered as other narrative styles.
“The challenge for Agatha Christie’s reputation is that by many she is considered a mid-brow writer in a world that lifts up high-brow writers,” Hennrikus said. “I do not think she would disagree that she wrote to please her reading public, though she did not pander to them.”
The Associates of the Boston Public Library have been hosting the Retroactive Book Award annually since 1999, and the event draws in dozens of loyal attendees every year. Bill Nigreen, who has attended the award every year for over a decade, says that the event is held together by a strong group of literary enthusiasts in Boston.
“If this isn’t community I don’t know what is,” Nigreen said. “It’s people who care about books, and history, and having conversations about that, because really this whole thing is a conversation.”
Kathleen McDermott, who is a professor of Fashion History at MassArt, says that it is fascinating to see the influence the books chosen for this award continue to have a century after their publication.
“For me, as a historian, I love the idea that something that was published 100 years ago could have massive relevance today,” said McDermott.