Sunday, April 14, 2013


I grew up with a grandmother who baked bread.  I watched my mother roll out enough pie-crust to cover us all twice over.  Now I live with a man who has really only the one rule: no box cake.  I know from scratch.  It's always better, always.  (Though I will say, having once made an angel-food-cake from the jump, it ended up tasting just like I'd made it from the mix, so there's my one exception.)

I am not one of those who find turnips the sweeter for having weeded the patch.  I don't believe in painting my own house, or paving my own drive, or plumbing my own pipes.  There are good reasons to pay people to do what's disagreeable and hard.  But then I dislike chores, and yard-work -- or gardening as my earthier, Zen friends call it.  And no one should assume from anything I say here that I'm ever going to craft an "artisan" pizza or fold my own dumplings.  I live in a city.  Cities exist to provide their citizens with a good and affordable slice and access to professionally prepared dim sum at reasonable prices.  Taxis, dim sum, and a decent French bakery and as far as I'm concerned you've got the building blocks of urban living.

What scratch means to me is making something from love.  I know that has the ring of a spiral-bound cookbook on a butcher's block table, and I apologize for the homey truism, but only love is worth the working of something from naught for no better reason than the joy of the doing and the sharing of it when it's done.  People get paid to paint and pave and plumb, and yes, people get paid to grow and weed and bake, and well they should when they do it well.  But what I do from scratch, I do for love.

It is the very definition of the amateur, and I embrace it.  I am an amateur in most everything I do but what I do for a living, and even that -- even for the little enough I make doing it  -- I can safely say I do without much hope of worldly reward.  I sell books.  They have to pay me to do a lot of what it means to do that, but I keep doing it despite all that because I love working in a bookstore, putting books into customers' hands, recommending books, writing about books, buying and selling and reading books.  All for love, nearly.  No lie.

And so to reading aloud.  It seems I've made a mission of this.  I do it now, in the bookstore and out, all the time.  I read into an inexpensive and now already out of date little camera nearly every other week and post the results, unless they are truly not good, here and elsewhere on the Internet.  No one pays me to do this.  Few enough people ever look at these things or listen to so much as a single poem, but some do.  That matters.  I organize and participate in readings at the bookstore, celebrating everything from William Blake's birthday to Christmas.   I've now read hundreds of poems aloud, short stories by the dozens, essays, letters, excerpts from novels.  I've lectured and hectored more now than a little bit to get other people, other readers to do likewise, with me or on their own.

I believe that literature when read aloud is changed in a fundamental way from what it is on the page; the mystical and largely solitary communion between author and reader, to something larger and yes, communal when words come off the page and go out into the world in all their music and noise.  Someone said once that language is thought with breath.  Well our common literature is the sound of our best minds, alive and breathing again when we read it aloud.

It takes, frankly, some seriously hard work to make a reading for the bookstore from scratch.  Even so light a thing as the reading we will be doing come Tuesday -- a celebration of light verse and song -- requires ten times the reading of what will eventually be in it.  To make such an event from scratch, as it were, needs careful selection, editing, training, rehearsal, conversation and thought.  When it works, such an event should seem as effortless as a well made cake; nothing too fancy, mind, but a good, simple and sweet thing that satisfies without exhausting anyone's appetite for the thing being read.  A good reading should make the listener hungry.

The simplest rule for such a reading is to begin it with what one loves and go from there.  I love the poets we'll be reading come Tuesday night, I genuinely do.  I love Dorothy Parker, and Phyllis McGinley, and Stevie Smith.  I love the lyrics of the great Dorothy Fields, who will hopefully feature in two songs that night as well -- performed by two accomplished musicians from the bookstore staff, not sung, mind you, by the likes of me.  (No one needs to hear that.)

It isn't enough that I love what I mean us to read though.  Even if I was the only one reading, and I'm glad to say I won't be, that would not be enough.  Unlike the readings I do for the Internet from my battered old armchair here in my office at home, the readings I do at the bookstore depend very much on the support and participation of all the wonderful people who read with me, who introduce us and make the promotional materials, who send our listings to the newspapers and promote us via social media.  To make an actual public performance of anything, even something so seemingly simple as an evening's reading of light verse, means dozens of people, not just me working away to make a proper evening of it, and all of us one way and another working from scratch.

What makes such evenings matter, and in their way matter more, at least to me than the evenings of visiting writers reading -- as grand as such events are -- is just that special magic that comes from people, ordinary readers, coming together with whatever talents, large and small that we all may bring to such a foolhardy undertaking and making, as it were something from nothing; nothing but books, and the reading of them, from perhaps a little screw-top wine and some snacks, from a few chairs in a line and a table down front, from work, and enthusiasm and effort and yes, from love.

Scratch.  Nothing better, I think.

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