Dedicated to history, devoted to novels

Emily Curran serves as executive director of the Old South Meeting House. Emily Curran serves as executive director of the Old South Meeting House.
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / December 26, 2010

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In December 1773, thousands of angry Bostonians assembled at the Old South Meeting House for a gathering that culminated in the Boston Tea Party. Formerly home to the Old South Church, whose congregants included Phillis Wheatley and Benjamin Franklin, the meeting house is now a museum devoted to history and free speech. Its director, Emily Curran, grew up in Cambridge and Lexington and previously worked in programming at the Children’s Museum. Curran lives in Jamaica Plain.

What have you read lately?

I read constantly, purely for the pleasure of getting immersed in another person’s world.

I most love reading novels. A few that I’ve recently read: “Night Train to Lisbon” by Pascal Mercier, a Swiss writer. It’s got philosophical elements but also a compelling plot. And “Saving Fish from Drowning” by Amy Tan, which I loved. “The Gift of Rain,” by Tan Twan Eng, who’s a Malaysian writer. It’s set in Malaysia during World War II. I also read “The Razor’s Edge” by Somerset Maugham, which I think I picked up at a garage sale. And “A Free Life,” by Ha Jin.

Your taste in fiction seems very international.

I think I got captivated by the power of books to transport you to another place. I remember being a child and reading a book set in winter, and getting so engrossed that when I looked outside, I was startled that it was summer.

Given your work at the meeting house, do you read history?

I do. Right now I’m reading a couple of books that explore the Boston Tea Party. “Defiance of the Patriots” by Benjamin Carp is the most comprehensive history of the Boston Tea Party published in the past 40 years. I’m also reading Jill Lepore’s latest book, “The Whites of Their Eyes.” It’s a fascinating book. It explores how people have used the original Tea Party and other iconic episodes for various political purposes. Every year, we do an anniversary reenactment of the Boston Tea Party, and we had some visitors this year who are associated with the modern political Tea Party movement. I think a lot of them were surprised to find out the actual history, which is quite different from the shorthand version.

One incredible book I come back to — it’s out of print, it was published in 1948 — is called “Mechanization Takes Command” by Sigfried Giedion. It talks about the mechanization of life — in terms of making bread, how did we get from artisan-made bread to bread that is made in a factory? It looks at history and how we interpret it in a very compelling way.

What are some historical intersections between the meeting house and literature?

Old South Meeting House was sold for demolition in 1876, and the public rallied around to stop the demolition. Interestingly, a whole host of famous authors were involved in the effort — Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson. They ended up saving it and opening it as a museum and meeting place in 1877.

Growing up in this area, I read “Little Women,” a book that has inspired so many generations. Now my daughter, who’s 10, is really into those stories. Nathaniel Hawthorne also wrote these wonderful short stories, “Legends of the Province House,” set right in what’s now Downtown Crossing, imagining what it was like in the olden days.

And Thomas Prince, who was a minister here, had an amazing library in the steeple. He collected books from all over. Part of it was lost, they think, to the British during the Revolution, but a large part was saved and can be seen today, in the rare books collection of the Boston Public Library.

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