Serpent Blog

The Joy of Reading Aloud - Book Passage Part IV 

Now that I’m drawing nearer my reading at Book Passage I am nervous. I wonder if anyone other than my wife and children will be there to hear me read. Serpent Box is my first novel so I have not done many readings. Those I have done were attended by few. This is to be expected. No one knows who I am and very few know of the book. I, as many book store events managers have painfully reminded me, do not draw.

I discovered this the hard way at my first reading at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company, a wonderful old bookstore. When I arrived that night I found a room full of empty chairs before a raised lectern with a microphone, beside which stood a tall glass of water. I waited for someone to arrive, incredibly nervous. I had rehearsed all that day in my hotel room and was confident I could deliver an engaging read, but I do get stage fright, and worried that my voice might fail me. I was kindly told that on such occasions, for a new author, that it was possible no one would show, and at ten minutes past the time set up for the event it was apparent that would be the case.

In some ways I was relieved. But I had come all this way, and spent money, and practiced, so of course I was also crushed. In many ways I began writing simply so I could read to other people, for reading aloud brings me great joy. At quarter to eight it was clear there’d be no reading, so I signed the thirty books they had sitting there at the empty autograph table and I shook the kind hand of the events manager as he consoled me. He was very sweet, and he promised to have me back for my next book. Yes, I said, for my next book.

I packed up and put on my coat and walked the loneliest, saddest ten yards of my life to the front door. As I passed through the doorway, a woman stopped me. She was holding a copy of Serpent Box in her hand and she was reading the back cover, which bears my photograph. She grabbed me by the arm and said, hey, wait, aren’t you the guy reading tonight? Yes, I said. I was supposed to read tonight but no one showed up. She smiled. I showed up, she said.

We walked downstairs to the empty room with the chairs, and the lectern and the glass of water and this very nice woman, this angel, sat down in the front row and gave me her full attention. I read to her. I read my heart out to an audience of one. It was a very moving, very intimate experience, and it took great effort to keep from weeping. The connection I felt with her, a stranger with whom I shared the love of books, was one I will never forget.

As words flow through your mouth they become tangible, visceral, and somehow changed. Reading aloud enhances the pleasure of words and the impact of a story. Story-telling began, after all, as an oral medium. The spoken word, like music, fills the heart and permeates the flesh. Any parent who reads to her child a well-written book can attest to this feeling. Anyone who has sat and listened to his grandfather, as I have, tell the story of the Normandy landing and the march to Berlin, or some other tale of war, can speak to the power of such a telling.

The human voice is the blood of our souls. The language of the face, and the eyes, imbues nuance and emotion that defies the printed page. Reading aloud connects the reader to the listener, and the listener to the reader and both to the story in a most powerful way, and if the reader happens to be the writer as well, the voice becomes fixed and inseparable so that all his future works will carry it and become suffused with the inflection, tone, cadence and spirit that was intended by its creator.

Listening to a writer read their writing is the most intimate, instant and illuminating of shared artistic experiences. We cannot watch a painter paint or a filmmaker edit or a photographer composing a shot. Live music is the only parallel I can draw, and the performance of a band or vocalist who is on their game is as powerful if not more so, but bear in mind the writer is stripped naked, unaccompanied, completely alone. And likely, he or she has spent the last several years creating what is being read. I can still recall listening to Michael Cunningham read from The Hours, and I get the chills. I still see his face and hear his pain. What a wonderful gift he gave me. I will carry his voice forever.

When I completed my reading that night at Elliott Bay, I was sweating and trembling. The excerpt I read is emotionally draining. It is twenty-seven minutes describing the journey of a boy back to the place of his birth – the hollow of an ancient oak tree, where blacks had been lynched as recently as the day before. It was not an easy chapter to write, and it does not get any easier to read over time. I relive that journey anew every time I read it, and every time I read it I feel something different.

I consider myself very lucky and indeed blessed to have been given this book to write. And reading it to book-lovers is a privilege that I cherish. I hope you will be there this Sunday, but if you are not, I will be okay. I now know that an audience of one is fine, and that one eager listener is all I need and all I could ever ask for.

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