Let the Great World Spin

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Let the Great World Spin
First edition cover
AuthorColum McCann
CountryUnited States
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
23 June 2009
Media typePrint (hardback)

Let the Great World Spin is a novel by Colum McCann set mainly in New York City in the United States. The book won the 2009 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction[1] and the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, one of the most lucrative literary prizes in the world. Its title comes from the poem "Locksley Hall" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.


The plot of the book revolves around two central events. The first, laid out clearly in the book's opening pages, is the sensational real-life feat of the Twin Towers tightrope walk of Philippe Petit 110 stories up, performed in 1974. This lays the groundwork for the author's description of the human ability to find meaning, even in the greatest of tragedies, for which the Twin Towers serve as a metaphor.

The second central event, which is only revealed halfway through the book, is the fictional courtroom trial of a New York City prostitute. This serves as a sort of point of balance, bringing the book back down to its more earthly, and therefore more real basic story lines.


In the novel the author employs the unusual literary technique of designating multiple protagonists within the same book. In fact, no fewer than eleven different protagonists are introduced throughout the course of the book, each in their own dedicated chapters. Additionally, the various protagonists are sometimes cast in roles which are naturally in conflict or tension with one another: for example, first a prostitute, and then the judge who must pass sentence upon her. In this particular case, first an earlier chapter of the book presents the courtroom story through the eyes of the prostitute, later in the book the same story is retold through the eyes of the judge.


Throughout the book the author weaves the stories of each of his protagonists through both of the two central events, exploring the personal impact that each of these two events had on the lives of each of the various protagonists. Additionally, some other issues which are unique to certain of the various protagonists are touched upon, such as the loss of a child, or the personal struggles that a member of a Catholic religious order must contend with. This religious protagonist, named John A. Corrigan, was loosely based on the real-life Catholic priest, Daniel Berrigan.[2]

While some of the story lines may pass more directly through one of the two central events than the other, all are either directly or indirectly linked to them both. Through the author's ability to draw the reader into the minds of each of the many and varied protagonists, the reader is given an in-depth and multifaceted view of both the heights and the depths of life in New York City for both its ordinary, and its more extraordinary citizens. In subsequent interviews, the author has noted his intention to point out the melodramatic tensions present in all of our lives, whether perched upon a death-defying high wire, or merely trying to live out a more "ordinary" life, "where there is still an invisible tight-rope wire that we all walk, with equally high stakes, only it is hidden to most, and only 1 inch off the ground".[2]


The New York Times reviewer Jonathan Mahler ranked this book as, "One of the most electric, profound novels I have read in years."[3]

The novel received numerous honours including the U.S. National Book Award.[1] It was named winner of the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in June 2011.[4][5][6][7] The judging panel, among whom were John Boyne and Michael Hofmann,[8] described the book as a "remarkable literary work [...] a genuinely 21st century novel that speaks to its time but is not enslaved by it", noting the book's opening pages in which "the people of New York city stand breathless and overwhelmed as a great artist dazzles them in a realm that seemed impossible until that moment; Colum McCann does the same thing in this novel, leaving the reader just as stunned as the New Yorkers, just as moved and just as grateful".[9] Lord Mayor of Dublin Gerry Breen said it was "wonderful and fitting to have a Dublin winner in the year that Dublin was awarded UNESCO City of Literature designation, a designation in perpetuity".[8]

Album with Joe Hurley[edit]

Colum McCann and musician Joe Hurley cowrote a song-cycle—"The House That Horse Built (Let the Great World Spin)"—based on McCann's novel. The album is narrated from the perspective of the character Tillie. It was recorded with Hurley’s band The Gents—James Mastro (Ian Hunter), Tony Shanahan (Patti Smith), and Ken Margolis (Cracker)—and features The Chieftains' Paddy Moloney, Matt Sweeney, soul singer Tami Lynn, film actress Antonique Smith, Denis Diken and Joe McGinty. It was produced by Don Fleming and Hurley.[10]


  1. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 2009". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 27 March 2012.
    (With interview of McCann and other material.)
  2. ^ a b "Colum McCann: "Let the Great World Spin" (Random House)". 2009. Retrieved 2 January 2010. Quote from Diane Rehm interview with Colum McCann
  3. ^ Mahler, Jonathan (2 August 2009). "The Soul of a City". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 January 2010. New York Times book review.
  4. ^ "William Trevor makes an Impac". The Irish Times. 12 April 2011. Retrieved 12 April 2011.
  5. ^ "Irish author McCann wins IMPAC Dublin Award". CBC News. 15 June 2011. Retrieved 15 June 2011.
  6. ^ "Irish author Colum McCann wins lucrative literary award". BBC News. 15 June 2011. Retrieved 15 June 2011.
  7. ^ "Colum McCann wins Impac award". The Irish Times. 15 June 2011. Retrieved 20 June 2011.
  8. ^ a b Flood, Alison (16 June 2011). "Colum McCann wins 2011 Impac Dublin prize". The Guardian. UK. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
  9. ^ Taylor, Charlie (15 June 2011). "Colum McCann wins Impac award". The Irish Times. Retrieved 15 June 2011.
  10. ^ Philbrook, Erik (August 2010), "The House That Horse Built (Let The Great World Spin)", Blog Horizonvu Music, retrieved 25 May 2011

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Shadow Country
Peter Matthiessen
National Book Award for Fiction
Succeeded by
Lord of Misrule
Jaimy Gordon
Preceded by
The Twin
International Dublin Literary Award recipient
Succeeded by
Even the Dogs