Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why I Love Readings

I love going to readings. There's something magical about the atmosphere--just being in the room with all those people who also love books. I don't even have to know or love the book or the author to feel fed by that air. The way rock stars feed off the energy of a hyped-up crowd, I am energized by talking about books. 

When I was a college student, I attended every possible literary event within a two hour radius, for all four years. I heard some great readings. I heard Allen Ginsberg at Berea College, in a packed room, with a good friend who was a rabid fan. I heard Rita Mae Brown, Stephen Dobyns, CK Williams, and Mark Strand. (I was a poetry nerd). I heard all my own college's people, too: the student showcases, the faculty book parties. George Eklund and Michelle Boisseau were the poetry professors at Morehead then, and they were amazing. 

My friends and I would stay up late talking about the books we loved and the books we would write. We were just Kentucky kids at a state college, but we loved books and dreamed of bookish lives, with the intimate glamour afforded by readings in cramped bookstores and university parlors. I never wanted to be a rock star, but I wanted to hold a crowd with the power of my words, like these guys did.

My interest never ebbed, but my free time did. I grew up, got a "real job", had kids, got older and actually needed sleep. So, I don't get to go to as many events as I used to. 

Luckily for me, though, there's a wonderful independent book store the next town over from me. Flyleaf Books of Chapel Hill. Flyleaf brings in a LOT of interesting folks to give readings and talks. They've developed a fantastic space for it, too, with a casual feeling, but good space and a decent sound system that allows you hear well from anywhere in the room. 

Tonight I got to hear Lev Grossman reading from The Magician's Land, the third of his Magicians trilogy, a series of books that plays with a world much like C.S. Lewis's Narnia and, at the same time, a magic school. I've heard Grossman at Flyleaf before. In fact, when I heard him the first time, it got me to buy the second book, even though I'd been ambivalent about the first book. The reading made me see the book in a different light. 

These days, when I go to a reading, I'm looking at it with a different eye. Next year, I'll be giving readings of my own, maybe even at Flyleaf (they do often feature local writers). My readings won't have the numbers I saw tonight for Grossman, of course--this is my first book. No one has heard of me, or already read something else I've written. But still, I'll be at the microphone soon. That's exciting as hell!

I'm a fairly introverted person, but I'm not shy. I teach for a living, so I'm used to working a room and trying to engage a crowd. I hope those skills translate and make me charming like Grossman was tonight. He hit a good balance of self-deprecation and pride, seriousness and silliness. 

Grossman talked about how his book both grew from and diverges from the tropes of the fantasy books he has always loved. For example, he decided consciously not to have a Gandalf or Dumbledore figure, but to leave his characters foundering, forced to figure this magical world out for themselves. 

He talked about his love of fan fiction and of fan fiction's big sister, intertextual works like Wide
Sargasso Sea
and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (two of my favorite works--it was very cool that those were the examples he chose).  He seemed genuinely pleased at the idea that there was fan fiction being written from his book, which, arguably, is a kind of fan fiction for Lewis already. 

I didn't stick around for the signing line afterwards. I got what I wanted from the reading itself: another layer of connection with the writer. If I'd walked up to the table and tried to have a conversation while a line of people behind me waited to do the same, I'd go all shy anyway and fail to make an actual connection. I get the feeling I would like Grossman, if we ever got the chance to talk, though. He's in love with books, too. 


  1. I'm jealous. When I was in college, I was so focused on studying for my courses, and avoiding student social bashes, that I didn't know that there were any literary events like the ones you described. Since I was in college near Cornell U and Ithaca College, if my partying campus didn't have such events, they certainly must have. The closest that I came was leading a writer's group at the local YWCA. If only I had thought to keep my ears and eyes open for such events, I might have found my college years less lonely.

    I assure you that your familiarity with the book-reading scene plus your experience teaching ("working a room and trying to engage a crowd") will give you the finesse to touch your audience in a lasting way, if what I learned from watching book readings in movies has any relevance :)

    I hope Grossman finds your blog post and leaves you a comment.

    1. It's never too late weavergrace! And let's hope you're right about my own book readings.