I am not always the best listener and I do not always enjoy readings. Oftentimes there are the agitated shoulders, glancing eyes, and requisite hands-holding-drinks-while-pointing gestures of some sort of edgy literary scene. Authors tend to swallow their words or make too much of a self-conscious mess of themselves to be heard clearly. For some reason, I usually feel a need to urinate and spend the reading vaguely uncomfortable and distracted. Last night's Housing Works reading, with Diane Williams, Ben Marcus, and Deb Olin Unferth, was a distinct and delightful departure.
I have to give some credit to Housing Works, an organization that uses all proceeds to help people living with HIV/AIDS. Its bookstore and café are incredibly inviting: tall shelves, plenty of dark wood moldings, thin windows that stretch above the bookcases beside them. It is utterly unpretentious while maintaining a lot of class.
The most credit, however, has to do with how well our three authors read. My love for each of the night's readers is a matter of public record; cf. my posts about The Flame Alphabet and Vicky Swanky is a Beauty. But it had been a long time since I really felt pleasure from hearing a text rather than simply being alone with it. For the most part, I prefer reading alone and am often jarred when an author’s voice doesn’t align with the voice I’ve conjured in my head. And while none of the three authors read in the voice I had imagined, each brought to the text something I hadn’t heard before.
I don’t know how this happens. Surely, our three authors are not amateurs and experience has to have something to do with it. But there was something in their voices, in their presence while reading, that surpassed a person reciting text. They weren’t mere vehicles for words, but they weren’t actors either; there wasn’t an insincere sense of performance. I think what mattered was a sincere investment in the words themselves. A desire, firstly, to bring the sentences forth.
Maybe it was only that Deb Olin Unferth has an adorably high, authoritative voice and then Ben got up there with a really deep voice and spoke measurably slow but bitingly, and then Diane spoke in unpredictable cadences and with grace and movement. Maybe they used these devious tricks in order to delight me. And it worked.
So let's get off our computers. Stop texting or tweeting or scanning or browsing. Go listen.