Saturday, April 20, 2013


And another: another evening together, another reading, another poem, another song, and... another.

Someone suggested to me that I might try giving a talk about doing this, a talk for other independent booksellers, to encourage more people to try.  I like the idea.  In fact, there may be an opportunity to do just that.  We'll see.  The suggestion however was that any such class shouldn't be "limited to just reading aloud."  The idea being that bookstores might welcome advice on creating events independent of author's tours and the more usual things that come our way like professional seminars, and school book fairs and the like.  That's a marvelous idea!  Someone should do just that, someone who understands, for example, organizing crafting classes, or fan gatherings, someone who has the patience, creativity and connections necessary for doing locally the kind of inspired community outreach perfectly represented by that extraordinary event, World Book Night.  As booksellers, we need to have all sorts of engagement with our customers, and we specifically need to cultivate these connections in ways that do not depend exclusively on the talents we are lucky enough, some of us, to have come our way from publishers large and small, and authors, local and national.

If bookstores, and specifically independent bookstores are to survive in an era of seemingly constant changes in both publishing and reading, we must be not only flexible enough to adapt ourselves and the way we do business to new models and means, but also be willing to experiment, and, yes, possibly fail, but at the very least not to waste the new opportunities that this new era provides us; from self publishing services and design, to utilizing social media, partnering with small presses and existing community organizations, and expanding the scope of what we may do collectively to include more than what we have traditionally done; at trade shows and the like.  The possibilities are, or ought to be, at least as exciting as the change that can often seem more than a little bewildering, else what's a bookstore for?

I would happily participate in any such discussion.  I do dearly like to talk.  I might, indeed, have something useful to contribute.  Form a panel.  I'll show up.

As for the possibility of me doing something of my own, well, here it is.  This is what I do.  I don't really ever do it alone.  Even when I'm the only one up there at the front, I do not, could not do it without the help and support of coworkers, management, friends, to say nothing here of local media, or the wonderful people who force their children, parents and or spouses to attend one of our admittedly rather respectable shindies.  (Though I do endorse any excuse for the introduction of spirits.  Booze and nibbles make it a party.)  That said, what I do, the thing about which I am myself most passionate is this, exactly the thing, it seems, most people, even most booksellers tell me they neither could nor would want ever to do, read aloud.

Nonsense.  The thing I am passionate about -- appearances to the contrary -- is not the sound of my own rather reedy and unmusical voice.  Years ago, when I was still in drama school and thinking I would one day be an admittedly rather diminutive, gap-toothed Hamlet, I had a voice class specifically to learn the proper way of speaking verse.  That meant Shakespeare.  I had a marvelous teacher.  He was no Romeo himself, by the look of him, by the way.  What he did have was a marvelous, musical baritone that made everything he said, from Othello's asides to ordering lunch, sound like a hot bath feels.  It was magical.  I worked very hard in that class.  I learned how to scan a line, to mark a speech, how to listen.  It was marvelous.  I loved it.  It wasn't very long after I'd been up on my hind legs doing, I believe, Richard the Third's first great speech, "Now is the winter of our discontent..." before my teacher gave me the critique that still stings to this day.

"Brad," he said, rather gently, in that deep, rich, Shakespearean voice of his, "you make everything sound as reasonable as an annual report to stockholders."

And, scene.

When I abandoned the theater shortly thereafter, it was no fault of his.  I saw how professional actors, most of 'em, lived.  Sobering.  Not all that long after that, I became a Rhetoric major, then met my beloved and left school altogether to pursue opportunities in fast food, banquet service, video rental and eventually bookselling.  I like to think that I finally found my m├ętier.

All this autobiography is offered just to show that whatever talent I bring to this business of reading aloud may best be described as more the result of practice and an almost missionary enthusiasm for the sound of the language, than any particular gift for spellbinding.  I have to work at it, still.  

I do believe however not only in the importance of reading aloud for the full appreciation of literature, but also in the very real possibility that while not everyone can do it in public, more can do it than will probably ever try.  My experience of organizing and creating readings at the bookstore has shown conclusively that while there are people who will never read a word when anyone else other than their own small children will hear, there are in fact more potential readers for such events than anyone, including myself might ever have imagined had we not tried.

It's true that I have not just invited, but also cajoled, begged, bullied, and frankly blackmailed not a few people into reading aloud with me.  I've been lucky enough to work with more than a few people with more natural talent than I ever possessed, which has been thrilling.  Actors, musicians, comedians, singers, public performers of every stripe, I've found will often end up, if temporarily working in a bookstore.  Great good luck, that, for the kind of thing I try to do.  There have also been just as many people without any such inclinations or experience, with natural voices no better than mine, and personalities considerably more retiring who have been surprised to find that with the right material and in the friendly and supportive setting of the bookstore,  the experience was not only educational but even fun.  

(If you're one of the people reading this who might be shaking your head in disdainful disbelief, I might collect the necessary affidavits from the now scattered readers who have come and gone; from booksellers and students, and members even of the general public who have surprised us all with a poem, a story, even a song, but I doubt even that would convince you.  I leave you in peace, though I'd be willing to work on you.)

This latest reading presented new challenges to both of my fellow readers, neither of whom was comfortable reading verse.  One of the greatest pleasures for me in doing these readings has been working with forms that might challenge us in new ways.  The rehearsal process, however abbreviated by scheduling difficulties and or other commitments has actually proved to be one of the real joys of doing this.  I am an enthusiast of poetry, but neither a practitioner myself, nor, as my teacher pointed out long ago, a very musical sort of guy.  I haven't, as I've already suggested, a gift.  What I do have is a dogmatic conviction as to the best way to read and hear poetry and that is frankly to speak it.  I'm not saying that it mightn't be better for everyone concerned to hear the poet him or herself reading the stuff they wrote themselves, but then that is not always true, as anyone who has ever attended more than one poetry reading can doubtless attest.  Some great poets were pretty miserable readers.  (My theory being that too many poets, even good poets, either read too little themselves or listen too little to anyone else.)  

I've been nattering on for years to anyone who will listen, to anyone specifically who claims to neither read nor understand poetry to try putting voice to the words, even if it is just in the snug seclusion of some safe corner of their own homes, or alone in the woods.  Doesn't matter where or when or even to whom one reads poetry aloud so much as it matters to say the words and hear them said.  There's pleasure, and meaning in that, and more to follow the more that's done.  Part of the pleasure specific to poetry, but common to all great literature, is in the sound.  Literature is meant to make a noise, and not just in one's head, if for no other reason than to make better sense.

And so I'm back to what it is I would do and would like to do for other people perhaps similarly situated in independent bookstores, in need of some occasion to share with the communities, large and small in which they happen to be and which they mean to serve.  This business of making an event from the very stuff we love, from the books we sell and the people who like us love them, is as simple as starting with the sound, however tentative, however unfamiliar, of one voice raised.  There are children's booksellers doing "storytime" all over the map, you know there are.  Is it such a leap then to start from there, from reading as nearly every mother, every parent or grandparent already does to our children to reading to our friends and patrons and peers?  Is there any reason to think that reading one poem and inviting others to read one as well, and then another read another, and so on, might not easily enough become something other, something more, something new, for being nevertheless as old as the sound of human stories as far back as humans go?  We have the stories already, all around us!  We already love them, our poets, our writers, living and dead.  

All the words need is breath.

It's worth mentioning again just here that these readings are popular, in their modest way, with a minimum of notice and with as little by way of requirements as a chair, a book and someone willing to read it out loud. 

I'd be happy to help anyone who's interested.  I can.  I've done it before.  I mean it when I tell you that if I can, so can anyone else.  If you don't believe me still, I'm willing to work on you.   

Just ask.

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