Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Brief Justification, I Hope

A couple of years ago, I was briefly interviewed by one of the local free weeklies. To call what came of that phone-conversation an "interview" makes the enterprise sound altogether too grand. Basically, a young woman who writes up the schedule of coming events, called me at the bookstore to ask me some questions about my annual Christmas readings. For a few Christmases now, I've been doing a public reading Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory, with another holiday short story or poem as an encore, if you will. The first year that I did this at the bookstore, I was surprised to find more than just the few friends and coworkers I expected in attendance. This was due, in no small part, to my reading making it into not only the listings produced by the good promotions people at the bookstore, but also into the published schedule of "books" events in the papers. A schedule of all the bookstore's author appearances and the like is sent out well in advance to the newspapers. All part of the service, but I did not really think that my little reading would draw. True, December is a slim month for literary evenings out, but still. More people showed up that first night than I had ever hoped might, and each Christmas reading I've done since has brought out more people than the previous year, and that has been surprising as well. Good and loyal friends might feel obliged to return each year, though they aren't, but so have some of the same strangers, if so I should still call them. Most interestingly, there have always been more people I knew not at all each year than the year before. Last year, when I was scheduled to read not only at the bookstore where I work, but in two branches as well, one of my readings was cancelled because of a snowstorm -- quite unusual in this area -- and another happens in the midst of what, for us, constituted a blizzard, and yet, people came out. (Took me two and a half hours to get home from that one in the snow. The second bookstore is only across the water in Bellevue, but the floating bridge was a bit tricky, to put it mildly.)

When the young reporter called me, she was checking the date and time of my reading, but she was also curious about just what it was I planned to do, and why. I mention her youth because I think it explains something of her confusion and or her curiosity. No new book was being promoted by my reading. Capote published his story in 1956. I read from a large, handsome, but out of print edition of it every year. The author was long dead, and as I made no claim to being either a scholar of his work, or a specially accomplished performer or storyteller, the woman from the newspaper confessed to me on the phone that she didn't quite understand what the purpose was of such a performance. Reading aloud, or more like, being read to, was something she remembered from childhood, but why would one read a Christmas story to other adults? and more to the point, why would other adults come out to listen?

I was fluttered by the question, I admit. No idea quite what I said in response, though I'm sure I sputtered and blustered out some justification or other for the evening. The young reporter was very nice. The little feature in the paper's events calendar was flattering and genuinely helped to promote the reading. I was grateful. Her questions though, made me think quite hard, after, about just what it was I was doing and why.

Reading another man's words out loud to an audience is not all that unusual an occurrence. Happens every day. Coworkers share an amusing something from the newspapers or the Internet, parents read every night to their children -- as the reporter noted -- and actors of course say other peoples words for a living. But to sit with another man's book in one's lap, face an audience of grown-ups and expect them to willingly listen... the reporter was right, that does perhaps require some explanation nowadays.

It would not always have needed such an explanation. There was a time when being read to was an experience common to nearly every class of person, at any age. Beyond the popularity of preachers and lecturers, authors have probably always read their work aloud to an audience, if only for critical suggestions and or support. But reading the work of others aloud is, I should think, if anything as old a practice at least. (Though if one were to travel back far enough, one would find storytellers and poets reciting rather than reading, but still.) In modern times, the practice of reading aloud probably reached its highest point among the Victorians. When the serial parts of the novels of Charles Dickens were published, those who might not themselves have been able to afford to buy the books, or even the inexpensive monthly parts, and those who could not read themselves, often gathered in the home of the some one who had a copy and then all present listened to a reading of the text. But it was also common practice, at the time, even among more literate and well-to-do families and friends, to listen to one another read aloud. A reasonable argument could be made that, other than making music together, reading aloud was one of the few entertainments beyond conversation available in the age before radio, television and "mass communication" in general. I have a theory, though unsubstantiated by any research of my own, that the habit of listening to a book being read aloud, in such religious times and places, had long since become a part of our familial and communal devotions, and so the reading aloud of entertainments like stories and novels was just a natural, secular extension of these devotions; an opportunity to be together, and happily, with something of the same sense of common purpose and pleasure, an edifying occasion certainly, but perhaps without the same need of solemnity, hymns and silence. Reading "Christmas at Dingley Dell," from The Pickwick Papers, aloud, in even the worst performance, for even the most intimate audience, probably was and certainly ought to have been anything but a solemn event.

Today there are a thousand other ways to pass the winter evenings together. As is evidenced by the generally decline in the purchase and reading of books, so much and so often ghoulishly noted in the media, ironically most often in the press, the ways in which we read, and the means, tend now rather to isolate rather than bring together people in a common experience. (How does one peek at the title someone else is reading on a Kindle or an iphone on the bus?) Add in the wonders of not just "new Media" but such established entertainments as movies, television and recorded music, and it is something of a wonder that a friendly if unfamiliar, human voice is heard anywhere in public nowadays but on passing cellphones. I certainly don't mean to suggest that listening to me read a short story can or ought to compete with any of the more professionally produced entertainments available. But what a public reading can and does do is offer an opportunity to be with other people in what may indeed be a rather old fashioned way; without the personal soundtracks we all now seem to require forever in our ears, without all the streams of inanity in which we now have little choice but to move: the constant blare of celebrity "news," and "infotainment," the unbelievably inconsequential chatter from those ubiquitous phones, the muzak and the muddle that swells around us in even a bookstore. Listening to a book being read aloud does remind us all of childhood, but more than that, it reminds us that some words have more value for the art with which they were selected and arranged, for being art, for the meaning they may still have after the first or the hundredth reading, and for the opportunity -- ironically so rare in such a noisy world -- to just listen, uninterrupted, together to the sound of a single voice.

As to the art or lack thereof with which this reader reads aloud, I can only apologize for being no better than I am. Enthusiasm makes up, I would hope, for much that may otherwise be lacking in my readings. I find a very special joy, not in the sound of my own voice which has always rather disappointed me, but in reading words I love aloud with friends, and so, in a way, any audience I might gather 'round me while I read aloud, all are. Together then, we are doing something in celebration not only of Christmas, something I love still, despite being a heathen and in retail, but also in celebration of being quietly together in a way we might otherwise forget, of being, to borrow a phrase from the believers, in fellowship, and in admiration and appreciation of the undiminished power of the written word.

And a good time, I hope, will be had by all.

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