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Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.

Let the Great World Spin is the critically acclaimed author’s most ambitious novel yet: a dazzlingly rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s.

Read more . . .

Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among the prostitutes in the middle of the burning Bronx. A group of mothers gather in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn their sons who died in Vietnam, only to discover just how much divides them even in grief. A young artist finds herself at the scene of a hit-and-run that sends her own life careening sideways. Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenage daughter, determined not only to take care of her family but to prove her own worth.

Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s powerful allegory comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the “artistic crime of the century.”

A sweeping and radical social novel, Let the Great World Spin captures the spirit of America in a time of transition, extraordinary promise, and, in hindsight, heartbreaking innocence. Hailed as a “fiercely original talent” (San Francisco Chronicle), award-winning novelist McCann has delivered a triumphantly American masterpiece that awakens in us a sense of what the novel can achieve, confront, and even heal.

Random House; First Edition edition (June 23, 2009)

Book Club Ideas


Decorations for Let the Great World Spin book club party can include just about anything to do with New York City. A Statue of Liberty statuette to use as a centerpiece, a really cool NYC skyline, or create your own street scene by putting together a NYC street vendor cart. I used flag pendantsand printed out some vintage signs I found on-line. I have a little retro hot dog roller (purchased for a birthday party) along with a retro squeeze bottle set for the condiments that are perfect for this theme.


Book Club Menu

The NYC street vendor “cart” needs some authentic NYC street food to go with it.

New York City claims to be the birthplace of the hot dog as we Americans have come to know and enjoy. Fact or fiction? Who really knows, but hot dogs selling on a street corner or at the ballpark is quintessentially New York City.

Place your hot dogs in stars and stripes boats and prepare them the New York City way with a tangy onion sauce.

Authentic New York City Hot Dog

Accompany the hot dogs with some crispy onion strings.

Boat of Onion Rings

No street vendor cart is complete without soft and chewy pretzels.

NYC Pretzels

In 1896 Italo Marchiony began selling ice cream in a container from his pushcart in New York City …

Ice Cream Cone

Yummy strawberry ice cream!


Book Club Resources

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads: 3.92 stars (72,749 ratings)
Amazon: 4.1 stars (483 ratings)
LibraryThing: 3.98 stars (1,399 ratings)
My Rating: 4.5 stars This novel is smart, edgy and completely engrossing.

Discussion Questions

Spoiler Alert: Discussion guide may contain spoilers to the book.

1. Let the Great World Spin is told through the eyes of eleven different characters. What is the effect of this chorus of voices? Why do you think the author chose to tell the story this way? If you had to choose a single character to narrate the whole book, who would it be, and why? What do you think might be lost, or gained, by narrowing the story to a single perspective?

2. As McCann explains in the author’s note, the book’s title comes from “Locksley Hall,” an 1835 poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which was itself inspired by a series of ancient Arabic poems. Why do you think McCann chose to use this title for such a modern American story? What does the title mean to you, and do you think it affects your relationship to the book as a reader? Would this be a different novel, do you think, if it had been called something else, like “Highwire”?

3. The narrative takes place almost exclusively in New York City, but could it have taken place in any other city in the world? How can this be seen as a specifically “New York” novel, and how might it not be? Are there ways in which the characters are emblematic of their time and place, or is there an “everyman” quality to them?

4. The novel opens with an extraordinary tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers. This is a fictionalization of a famous stunt by Philippe Petit in August 1974—yet the tightrope walker in the novel remains anonymous, unrelated to any of the other characters. What do you think the effect is of weaving this historical fact into the fiction of the other characters’ stories? What do you think McCann intends toachieve with this, and in what ways do you think he succeeds?

5. How important do you think this historic walk is in the novel itself? In what ways would the stories–and story–McCann is telling be different if the novel had been set on a different day, or in a different era?
Read more . . .

6. Do you see ways in which the tightrope might function as a metaphor, or symbol, throughout the book?

7. In the chapter titled “This Is the House That Horse Built” we get an intimate glimpse into the life of a New York prostitute in the 1970s. She considers herself a failure. Do you agree with her? Or do you think she achieves grace despite the circumstances of her life?

8. All but one of the chapters in Let the Great World Spin are set over the course of a couple of days in early August 1974. Why do you think McCann chose to jump thirty-two years, to 2006, for the final chapter? In what ways do these pages add to, complicate, or even change the story that came before? Why do you think he chose the character of Jaslyn to tell that final piece of the story?

9. What do you think Jaslyn discovers at the end of the novel?

10. What parallels do you see between the society of the 1970s, as McCann depicts it in the novel, and today? How do you believe these similarities and differences speak to the changes in America and the world over the past several decades? Would it be fair to say that America itself is one of the evolving characters in the novel, a separate figure whose story is also being told?

11. Adelita says: “The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own.” What does she mean by this?

12. It can be argued that Corrigan and Jazzlyn are the book’s two main characters, yet they die in the opening chapters. Why do you think McCann chose to allow their lives to be destroyed so early in the book? Why did he choose not to tell any of the story through their points of view? In what ways do you think that decision makes these two people more–or less–central and powerful in the story as a whole? Could it be said that it is sometimes the stories not told that affect us the most?

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The Author

Colum McCann was born in Dublin in 1965 and currently lives in New York with his wife Alison and their three children. He is the author of two collections of short stories and five novels.
Colum McCann
Awards for Colum McCann
* 2003 Esquire magazine’s “Writer of the Year”
* 2009 awarded the Deauville Festival of Cinema Literary Prize in Deauxville, France
* 2009 Colum will be awarded a French Chevalier des arts et lettre
* 2009 Colum inductee into Aosdana
* His short film “Everything in this Country Must,” directed by Gary McKendry, was nominated for an Academy Award Oscar in 2005.
…and other numerous awards and honors.
Awards for Let The Great World Spin
* 2009 National Book Award Winner
* 2009 Prix Deauville
* 2010 Ambassader Book Award Winner
*’s “2009 Book of the Year”
*’s “Books You Can’t Put Down”

Learn more about Colum McCann and Let The Great World Spin at his website.


Favorite Quotes, etc…

Here are some gems from Let The Great World Spin:

“It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.”

“One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of doing that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.”

“The overexamined life… it’s not worth living.”

August 7, 1974

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