For the last several months I’ve been enjoying house concerts in Stanstead. I get to go into someone’s living room and listen to performers as they stand in front of me playing intricate arrangements on instruments that I could never begin to master.
I, on the other hand, read out loud to people.
This is a strange custom that goes along with releasing a book. You go to a public place and do a thing that most people are quite capable of doing themselves. It’s not even as though the author uses funny voices, though he may. I don’t – except, of course, my natural funny voice.
Yet people love to hear authors read their work. Perhaps it’s the possibility of seeing the author squirm when his material tanks, like watching NASCAR for the fiery wrecks. Serious authors, of course, have the luxury of interpreting the awkward silence as deep concentration. For a humorist like me, though, silence is death.
So I was a little nervous when I appeared at Brome Lake Books last Thursday to promote my novel A Hole in the Ground as part of the Knowlton Literary Festival. Let me say that again: as part of the Knowlton Literary Festival. The person who recently wrote about designing a nude calendar of himself appeared at a literary festival.
I shared the event with Danish-born North Hatley writer Anne Fortier, the bestselling international author of Juliet and The Lost Sisterhood. Anne is lovely, poised, elegant, well dressed and well Danished. She spoke eloquently without notes about the creative process, her travels, womanhood and the struggles of film adaptations.
I, on the other hand, was rumpled and stammering and pointed out that the cover of my book looks like pea soup vomit.
But as contrasts go, it worked. I had also fortunately chosen a passage from my book set at a council meeting, forgetting that the Town of Brome Lake is ground zero for municipal dissent. It struck a chord.
Were there literary car crashes? No. A couple of fender benders, maybe, a drunk NASCAR fan on the track, perhaps, but nothing serious. And this is normal. I’ve held quite a few readings over the years and have now participated in (say it with me one more time) a literary festival. I have not been heckled once. One time someone did get up and leave, but I chalk that up to gastric distress.
Even if the author is dull, stammers or makes generalizing and unflattering remarks about every French teacher he ever had (for which I apologize), the people will listen politely. Some of them will even buy your book.
People who come to book events are the nicest people in the world. And here’s why:
Books strive to make sense of what it is to be human. As we’re taught in school, every story needs a conflict. Life is nothing but conflict. It’s struggle. It’s confusion. It’s council meetings. Books strive to help us understand that struggle.
People who love books open themselves up to all that striving. They go even further and open themselves up to the makers of those attempts at understanding, the authors. Listening to authors speak, then, is an appreciation of this gift. All in all, it makes book lovers the nicest, most open people in the world.
In my notebook, I once wrote, “Why does reading get a free ride? It’s passive, it’s slothful, it’s unproductive.” My notebook is full of nonsense like this. The answer to my ridiculous question, though, can be found in the people who read. Any inwardness a book induces is eventually directed outward in generosity of spirit, in the knowledge of how humans do or should behave, in an appreciation for the power of creativity.
So I got to play my little instrument last week in Knowlton. I also played it out loud at the Lennoxville Library, and I’ll be reading at Black Cat Books on November 6 as well. Readers could play this tune for themselves, of course. But when I play it in front of them, I hope that this small little thing we do together – writing and reading, creating and thinking – makes the world a more liveable place.