The Chicago Public Library has spearheaded the “One Book, One Chicago” program for ten years this year. Twice a year in the spring and the fall, the library selects a book for the entire city to read and then sponsors a wide array of events associated with the book. Discussion groups, guest lectures, theatrical productions. I’ve participated in the program at least once every year, and read books I would not have chosen otherwise.

The House on Mango Street, The Long Goodbye, Go Tell It On The Mountain, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are four such unfamiliar books.

The Spring 2011 selection is quite familiar to me: Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman. I first read Neverwhere in the Fall of 2002. It was my introduction to the author. Since then he has become one of my favorites. Gaiman originally conceived Neverwhere as a television series, and later completed a novelization of the story that avoided the more unfortunate business of writing for television.

I describe Neverwhere as a modern-day fairy tale. I’ve heard it categorized as fantasy, “a postmodernist punk Faerie Queene,” urban fantasy, and “Narnia on the Northern Line”. Most of the action is set in the magical realm of “London Below,” a parallel environment alongside the more mundane — some might say real world, normal London we’re familiar with — “London Above”. Characters include knights, noblemen, rat-worshipers and an angel. I’m loathe to title him a hero so I’ll settle for describing Richard Mayhew as simply the protagonist. Richard quickly learns that no good deed goes unpunished and finds himself propelled alongside a wonderfully imaginative allegory for a more modern age.

Besides re-reading the novel, I participated in two associated events as part of the “One Book, One Chicago” program. Friday night, Whirl, T and I went on a Neverwhere-themed tour of “Chicago Below” exploring the Chicago pedway. Last night, Steamboat and Hurricane joined Whirl, T and me to attend the conversation on imagination and creative with Gaiman and Audry Niffenegger at Harold Washington Library.

At the top of the agenda was establishing a connection between the book’s origins and Chicago. Gaiman summarized what he’d written earlier in a letter:

It was a quarter of a century ago, about 1986. I had recently read a book set in Chicago called Free, Live Free by Gene Wolfe (he’s local to you; the Washington Post has said Gene Wolfe may be the best living writer America has) and I had started thinking too much about cities.

What I had started to think about was that some cities were also characters. Chicago was, in Free, Live Free. It was drawn in such a way that it had become almost magical, and was as much of a character in the book as any of the more human people who walked around in it.

The two authors exchanged anecdotes before taking questions from the over-capacity audience. The estimated attendance was announced north of 700 people. The auditorium only seats 385. It was crowded. I took that as a good sign. Gaiman told a hilarious story about the creation of Coraline, including a reference to some advice from Larry Niven to “treasure your typos.” I found the insight he presented about his fascination with the House on the Rock refreshing. Gaiman featured the House prominently in my favorite of his novels, American Gods.

Neverwhere made me a fan of Gaiman’s work. Having the opportunity to see him speak was delightful. It’s exciting for me to see the book featured so prominently by the library — for so many people to be exposed to an incredible, wickedly creative author.