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Serpent Blog - The Sacred Act of Reading

Serpent Blog

The Sacred Act of Reading 
ďThen there were times when you had to write. Not conscience. Just peristaltic action. Then you felt sometimes like you could never write but after a while you knew sooner or later you would write another good story. It was really more fun than anything. That was really why you did it. He had never realized that before. It wasnít conscience. It was simply that it was the greatest pleasure. It had more bite to it than anything else.Ē Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories



What a strange thing it is, to stand before a group of people unknown to you and read to them. There is nothing quite like it. You appear before a group of people and read from something painfully extracted from yourself. You read to them, for their approval, that which youíve derived, at great cost, from your living. You let them hear, in your truest voice and intonation, your most secret, private thoughts and observations, gleaned from all your moments of pain and glory. You open your self. You expose the very essence of who you are. When you stand before a body of readers to share what you have written, honestly and with all your might, you stand naked and alone among the critics, judges and lords of the land to which you seek citizenship.

What an electrifying thing this is, to take what youíve created in utter solitude that which you could not possibly conceive of being read by anyone, and to transmit it, via your mouth, to the minds and hearts of story-lovers whose names and lives are as mysterious as the very source of the words themselves. Can there to be a purer union than that of the reader who loves the act of reading and the listener whose passions are words and books? There symbiosis here, between the story-teller and the story-lover. Thereís a flow of something, back and forth, a willingness to be part of the other, a desire to know and be known.

Hereís how it begins. Words lie on the page. You see the words there but for a moment thereís no reaction between mind and mouth, for a nanosecond thereís a terrifying sense of panic, as if youíve lost the faculty to translate language into sound. Thereís a moment when the words are legible and then thereís a moment when they blur into strange forms like ancient Greek or Celtic runes. So you breathe and you blink and you remember the very day you sat alone with a pen and a book of lined paper when those words, the ones right there below you, printed and no longer your own, first came to you, as mysteriously as they come to you now. You remember that they were given to you as a gift, but at the great cost of your full commitment to them. You remember that they came only one, two, three at a time like drops of water from a faulty valve. You didnít understand them then and you seem not to understand them now and before you sits a small but patient crowd who have relinquished part of their afternoon, and part of their private joy - the sacred act of reading. They have turned that over to you, they are trusting you with that, allowing you to do for them what they have already mastered, and more than that, allowing you to transpose your voice, your sound, onto words that would otherwise become their own, so that forever you will be inseparable from everything stamped with your style and your name.

Thereís a lot of pressure on a new writer. Thereís a lot at stake. You want the world to read your book but you donít want to beg for it, or sell hard. You want the book to come to readers naturally, on its own merits. A book is a personal thing. Itís not a patent-medicine or a Ginsu knife. You canít sell a book any more than you can sell yourself as a friend. Friendships are formed through affinities between people. The relationship between a book and a reader is like a friendship. If thereís something about it that connects you, that resonates with you, then you can become its friend. Reading at bookstores is the only way a writer can truly connect with a reader. And one feels a great responsibility to those who come to listen. Iím humbled by it. A reading is a holy event. I approach even a small, intimate reading as if I was Martin Luther King mounting the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, as if what I read actually means something, or might move someone. Because I want the reader-turned-listener to feel what I feel, to see what I see, to know what I know. I want us to be one.

The miracle of reading a book, the joy of it, is when the writer and the reader meet on the page and become one. When the reader and the writer meet face-to-face the connection between the story and the reader can be even more powerful. The human voice is beautiful and nuanced. It is suffused with so much emotion, so much meaning, that the pauses themselves can bear the significance of words. A breath can impart sense, a tremolo, a stutter - all become the vocabulary of the reader. Listen to Martin Luther King when he speaks. The null space is as powerful as the text itself. The void between words, the gestures, the movement of eyes, the hand at the brow, the tilt of a head. We see the words come to life. We see them wholly, and just as the writer intended.

Hemingway said that writing was simply, the greatest pleasure. I used to agree. Yes, there can be great joy in the writing but I tell you, there is greater joy in the reading of the writing, especially to an audience of eager listeners. The moment when the words truly come to life, and take on their fullest meaning, is that moment when theyíre being shared, physically, between the writer and the reader hearing them for the first time. That is the magic of story-telling. The teller standing before the listener, fully involved in the telling. Bookstore readings are the sole vestige of our ancient story-telling traditions.

As I stood before a small group of listeners at Book Passage this Sunday past, I was aware that my voice was being broadcast not just in the small room at the back of the store, but throughout it. I was told the P.A. system was on low, everywhere, so that those browsing the stacks might hear and be drawn to the reading. And some were drawn. Some came and sat. Some stood for a few minutes and then wandered off. Some simply stood, new books in hand, watching, listening, becoming part of the story for a little while until I stopped, and closed my book and they walked off to once again resume the story of their own.


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