A Berkeley celebration of Mark Twain

There were no jumping frogs but there was a lot of celebratory cheer Wednesday evening at the official book launch of Mark Twain’s autobiography.

Since the esteemed humorist died 100 years ago and couldn’t read from his own text, other authors, poets, actors, and filmmakers did the honors.

Under a carved wooden ceiling in the Heyns Reading Room of Doe Library, Michael Chabon, Maxine Hong Kingston, Rita Moreno, Mary Roach, Robert Haas, Bob Haas, I. Michael Heyman, Eric Karpeles and Walter Murch read excerpts from Twain’s work.

Ed Raches and Mary Roach
Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman

The actor Val Kilmer, who has been doing research at The Mark Twain Papers in recent weeks for his upcoming film, Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy, was scheduled to read. But Kilmer was detained in Napa, where he is acting in the horror film, Twixt Now and Sunrise, which Francis Coppola is shooting on his Napa ranch.


Kilmer was still heard, however. A voice recording of a performance of him as Twain (with whom he apparently is fascinated) was piped in the room. In the Bancroft reading room upstairs from the presentation, a film of Kilmer as Twain played on a continuous loop.

What was so surprising – and wonderful – about the Twain readings was how relevant and funny they remain a century after they were written.

“Mark Twain continues to delight, illuminate, infuriate, and provoke readers around the world,” Charles Faulhaber, the director of the Bancroft Library, told the crowd of 250 who gathered for the evening.

Maxine Hong Kingston

Chabon, who has been reading Twain out loud to his two youngest children since May – first “Tom Sawyer”, then “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” —  said he was impressed by Twain’s wit and keen observations.

“Twain is still shocking both to someone who is 47 and someone who is 7,” said Chabon. “We’re continually shocked at his impiety, his outrage, and the way he makes you laugh at other human beings.”

Autobiography of Mark Twain has spent three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and an equal amount of time on the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list.  UC Press printed about 300,000 copies of the book and it is so in demand that numerous bookstores have run out of the books and are waiting to get more.

The Bancroft Library had also set up an exhibit of material relating to Twain, including a guest book he kept from 1908 to 1910 at his home in Stormfield, near Redding, Conn. Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, were some of the people who visited. There were also letter and manuscript pages.

Guests browse Twain's papers