Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Cabbages & Kings

That rather owlish blur at the lower right of this photograph would be me.  The fellow onstage, you may recognize, even at this distance.  Last night I was afforded the rare privilege of meeting Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie, again.  On being introduced to me backstage at Town Hall, Seattle, he was kind enough to make very polite noises about remembering if not me, then "the beard" from the last time we'd met.  Bless him.  I was there to introduce him at the event.

He was signing stock when I came in.  I slipped into the other "green room," so as to not be underfoot.  I'd brought along Carlyle's Life in London, by James Anthony Froude, to read while I waited.  When he'd finished signing, the author came next door to where I was sitting.  I offered to make myself scarce -- we had about an hour before his reading was set to begin.  Instead, he motioned me to sit and asked for the book in my hand.

What followed was, for me, a very pleasant hour's conversation with one of the writers I admire most.  How 'bout that?

We talked a bit about Carlyle, and Froude, about biography, autobiography, and about his late friend, Douglas Adams, "of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax -- Of cabbages -- and kings."  I won't attempt to reproduce our conversation, even if I could.  It wasn't an interview.  I didn't take notes.  I was no Boswell, alas, hurrying home to record the encounter.  In all likelihood, for the novelist, it was just part of his working day.  He'd already done an event at Google headquarters that morning.  After the reading at Town Hall, he was done, but would be flying to Portland on the following, to finish his tour.    For me, as I said, it was an extraordinary opportunity to have a conversation with a great writer.  How often does a bookseller like myself get to do that, and with a Knight, yet?  It was privilege and a pleasure, not material for a blog-post.

I note the occasion here not because I feel I should record what was said.  I suspect I talked too much, and about books and people in whom he had only a polite interest.  He was charming.  The point of mentioning our conversation at all is to note how rare a thing it is to meet the artists we most admire, to have the chance to actually talk with a great writer, even to be part of such an event, for that matter.  All of this: the reading, the signing, my introduction, our conversation, happened because I work in an Independent bookstore.

The tradition of authors promoting their books in this way, on "a tour," is a modern invention, but the idea of the author reading aloud to an audience is as old as humanity, as old as the first story.  That writers of international reputation should still be out on the road, promoting their work by reading it aloud, by meeting their readers and signing their books, -- that hundreds of people would pay for the privilege of hearing a novelist stand on a stage and read from his autobiography, -- that is an indication of the undiminished relevance and influence of literature.

The audience was as diverse as any I've seen in this city.  There were readers there young enough to be my grandchildren and old enough to be my parents.  Before the doors opened, I heard in the crowd no less than three languages other than English, and saw eager expressions on every sort of face and excitement in eyes of every color.

It was books, brought us all there -- a book, by a major author, also present, this particular evening -- but books as a necessary point of interest, intersection and interaction, books as still the best means of recording and communicating the complex, individual experience of our common humanity, books that made us more than just so many people gathering passively on a street corner, waiting to be entertained.  What other art but literature has such conversations as both it's source and it's purpose?

And what other business model, what other industries but traditional publishing and Independent bookstores have ever made such a commitment of talents, resources and time to see that such conversation will continue in an age that sometimes seems content to communicate in captions and 140 "characters"?

More personally, what other job would invite a middle-aged man with only a high school diploma, a man admittedly widely if not necessarily well-read, to introduce such another as Salman Rushdie to a crowd of nearly a thousand people?  What other job would afford me the opportunity to spend an hour's conversation with such an artist?

(What other living writer would I have been so pleased to meet?  With whom have I passed a more memorable hour's conversation?)

I mark the occasion here, because I am grateful.

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