Does public reading sometimes seem anachronistic?
We see crowds for writers like Billy Collins and Anne Lamott, among others of the most gifted among us. But these throngs have much to do with celebrity, it seems to me, and less to do with a love of hearing good work read aloud in an author’s voice. You don’t get standing-room only very often at the local writers open mic night.
I was freshly reminded this past week of the impact a good reader has on an audience and how a good reader can “sell,” or illuminate, the written work itself.
Justin Taylor, a Paste contributor and recent recipient of a glowing New York Times Book Review multi-paragraph paean, read here in Atlanta from his HarperCollins debut collection, Everything here is the best thing ever. Taylor appeared at the invitation of A Cappella Books. About two dozen people filled a comfortable room in Opal Gallery, one of Atlanta’s most compelling exhibition spaces.
Brooklyn-based, 27-year-old Taylor has bylines at this magazine, plus The Believer, The Nation, The New York Tyrant, the Brooklyn Rail, Flaunt, and NPR. He co-edits The Agriculture Reader and contributes to HTMLGIANT.
Even with this coup stick, Taylor is defying the odds. For a major publishing house to put out a paperback short story collection, a debut fiction at that, and one so ‘literary,’ bucks all recent trends in big-league publishing. Kudos to the publishers for making a book like this available … and to the NYT book review for finding and reviewing it in these strange times.
Taylor’s reading was a memorable experience. He knows his material – he wrote it, after all. So hearing his inflections and points of emphasis and his emotion at certain points in the short story he read, “In My Heart I Am Already Gone,” revealed it in ways the page alone cannot.
That’s the magic of readings generally. For those of us who care about literature, the vocalized revelations we hear are memorable to us the way watching Albert Pujol hit one out matters to a baseball fanatic, the way hearing a Carlos Santana solo matters to a music nut.
Today’s column is likely a sermon to the faithful. Chances are if you read The Booky Man, you’re find yourself at literary readings often enough. You appreciate the words from an author’s tongue in a way that’s different, though identical, to the words from his pen.
This column, good reader, is simply a reminder. Go to a reading – make it a destination. Perk up your ears. When you hear a story or a poem read aloud, stop listening to words. Listen to the song.
A human voice rises, falls. It lilts, it languishes. It starts and stops.
The live reader is an oracle, and the sybilline sounds that rise from a writer’s mouth tell you far more about the work than letters or sentences alone.