If Bob Cairns’ website for book lovers has an NC State flavor, chalk it up to a guy getting a little help from his friends.
Cairns, 72, worked at NC State for 34 years as a publicist, marketer, speech writer, event planner and sometime-author of the chancellor’s annual report. You might recall seeing his byline on more than 70 alumni magazine stories over the years. So it’s easy for him to persuade campus notables to write about their favorite books on his website, pageturnersfromthepast.com.
A published author and avid reader, Cairns created the site to call attention to older books he “believes deserve a good dusting off.” He offers personal recommendations — “not reviews,” he emphasizes, because books he doesn’t like get no mention — along with a taste of the storyline and the author’s writing style.
“The Notables’ Notes give our readers a chance to see what folks they may know or have heard of are recommending,” says Cairns, who reaches out to movers and shakers in publishing, entertainment, the military, politics, public service and athletics. Among those who have weighed in are bestselling authors Nelson DeMille and Bill Bryson; screenwriter Norman Steinberg, whose credits include Blazing Saddles and Cosby; and actor David Wells.
And right alongside them, you’ll find names straight out of Cairns’ NC State contact list.
There’s retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and head of NC State’s Shelton Leadership Center. Cairns helped Shelton produce “Secrets of Success: North Carolina Values-Based Leadership,” a coffee table book published in 2009 featuring interviews with 35 leaders with North Carolina ties.
The general’s picks: “Once an Eagle,” a novel by Anton Myrer tracing the careers of two Army officers; and “Dereliction of Duty,” by H.R. McMaster, about U.S. government decision-making during the Vietnam War. “This book sensitized me and the other members of The Joint Chiefs to be on the lookout for individuals who might be motivated by their own agenda,” Shelton writes. “Ironically, almost 40 years later, I learned that similar behavior and agendas were still alive in D.C.”
You’ll also find another of Cairns’ longtime pals — Dr. Jerry Punch, physician, ESPN auto racing and college football commentator and 1975 NC State graduate. Punch, a self-described military history buff, recommends Robert M. Poole’s “On Hallowed Ground,” the story of Arlington National Cemetery.
And you’ll find Chancellor Randy Woodson, who recommends “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.” The book focuses on 1862, a year that brought one of the Civil War’s largest and deadliest campaigns, the Battle of Fredericksburg.
“What is amazing to me,” Woodson writes, “Is that during this most difficult year, Mr. Lincoln was able to get some key legislative items approved.” One of those was the Land Grant act, paving the way for states to establish universities focused on agriculture and mechanical arts. NC State is, of course, a land grant university.
The website gets plenty of traffic through a tie-in with one of North Carolina’s largest commercial media sites, WRAL.com. Page Turners also links to the V Foundation for Cancer Research, the nonprofit founded in memory of NC State’s legendary men’s basketball coach and the focus of Cairns’ 2004 book, “V & Me: Everybody’s Favorite Jim Valvano Story.”
Next up from NC State will be Dr. Catherine Gordon, class of 1986, a well-known expert in the field of adolescent medicine. Cairns, who lives in Denton, N.C., welcomes suggestions about other notables to invite. If you have a nominee to suggest, let the site’s developer, Ralph Roberts, know. Write him at email@example.com.
So what makes a book a “page turner,” in Cairns’ view?
“One that page 2 has something on it that’s so damn good that you can’t wait to look at page 3,” he says. “We as readers have to identify with the story, the characters and the dialogue, and that’s a page turner.”
—Carole Tanzer Miller