Reading has always involved a secret meeting between the writer and the reader. It has some of the aura of an antiquated confessional booth because the writer and the reader never see each other. It's a meeting where the reader recreates the book in his or her singular imagination. This transaction has always been veiled.
Books and book buying used to be quite public, however. (Just ask St. John the Bookseller who ran down the streets of Padua, distributing pamphlets.) In bookstores, people used to get lulled into a kind of meditative state, browsing, reading, sometimes looking over shoulders to see what someone else was reading: The woman with the tight bun and no make-up was reading Ten Steps Toward Finding The Love of Your Life and the dolled up chick was reading Tristram Shandy and the guy with all the tattoos was reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Some people covered up the books they read. (They were the interesting ones. You waited until they put the book away, or left it carelessly on a table.)
In the 21st century, however, people often don’t buy books in bookstores. They buy them secretly, in the dark, illuminated by the glow of small, expensive machines that are able to send the books instantly to the reader. The book they ordered is in an incandescent box, so it’s hard to know what anyone’s reading. (This wasn’t just a source of entertainment in bookstores—but also on buses, subways, and cafes.)
And yet there are still events in this curious century called "bookstore readings" in which the invisible writer, the voice behind the veil, emerges as a real person. This writer-as-object reads some passages from the book, talks about what it was like to write the book and answers questions. Given that so few books are sold in bookstores, one wonders why there are such events anymore. Are they in hopes of converting readers so they can sell more books? Often not. Are they attempts to get people to discover the bookstore? Yes...but not always with great expectations. And what about the-book-as-object? Are bookstore readings reminders of the pleasures of the book and the pleasures of seeing many books together? Of course. Bookstore owners love books. They love words on paper.
At the same time, bookstore owners are also generous to writers. They realize that without writers the whole industry would crash.
It's easy to understand this if you imagine a tall inverted triangle--wide at the top, narrow at the bottom. The top of the triangle consists of the etheric places where books can be bought in the glow of mysterious machines. The triangle narrows to booksellers, sales reps, publishing houses, reviewers, editors, and agents. A the very bottom of the triangle, barely holding it up, is the writer who writes the books—a fragile balance. Especially when you consider that without the writer the rest of the triangle would topple.
One wonders why readers--readers who have the luxury of privacy and instant gratification--come to these events. I certainly have wondered as I watch them go home to order a book from Amazon--or bring me their pre-ordered books to sign. And I think the answer is that we still have a craving for embodiment, for what's real, for who's real.
The truth is that the writer as a real person still surprises people at readings. Maybe with an unexpected level of wit. Or making sense of a difficult question. Or giving you a clue (valuable to writers) about what sort of information they need when they write. Sometimes they distribute Noh masks. Or serve sangria. Rarely do people leave without the sense that they found out something they're glad to know.
It makes sense that bookstores--places that value the-book-as-object--also value the-writer-as-object. There may be ghosts behind glowing little boxes that order and contain books. But there are no ghosts behind the book itself, even if the writer sometimes feels like a ghost--haunting fragments, images and scenes until they assemble into a story. In an age where so much is etheric, we still crave dimensional reality.
One of my favorite stories is one that Maurice Sendak told. It's not directly about a book, but it speaks to the lure of embodiment.
“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
Causes Thaisa Frank Supports
Kiva Doctors without Borders Care2