How to Live: Lessons From Last Night’s Reading

by
John Freeman
2.12.20

It is hard to believe now, but until relatively recently there were usually just two places you could see a writer you admired: on the back flap of a book or at a public event. In the 1960s and 1970s, a very small number of writers, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal among them, appeared on television, often as guests on evening talk shows. But to listen to recordings of most writers’ voices, let alone watch video clips of them speaking? You had to go to a research university’s archives for such communion. Now I can pull up all this and more on a phone smaller than a piece of toast. Countless recorded interviews, talks, and readings are at our fingertips. 

The memory of what came before lives in my library. The older my books are, the easier they open to the back flap. I’d frequently flip there if I was really enjoying a collection of poems or stories. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was a way to make the intimacy of reading a little more real. “Who are you?” I remember thinking while reading Anne Carson’s Plainwater: Essays and Poetry when it was published by Knopf in 1995. According to the flap copy, this was the wrong question. “Anne Carson lives in Canada” was the only bio note; no photo.

I kept asking this question of writers anyway, and when I was just out of college the search for answers often drew me to literary readings. I moved to New York City in the mid-1990s to work as an editorial assistant at a book publisher in what I now realize was the heyday of the author tour. If someone published a book, there was an event. It didn’t matter whether the author lived in the area or not (nor did it seem to matter whether they were particularly good, on the page or the stage); if they had a book, they came to the city to do an event. On some nights there were nearly a hundred readings. Microphones hummed across all five boroughs. Mostly it was a banquet of riches. Writers I’m now astonished to have seen in the flesh filed through town: Adrienne Rich, Saul Bellow, Nadine Gordimer, José Saramago, Kurt Vonnegut, W. S. Merwin, Mary Oliver, Lucille Clifton.

It should not have been such a revelation to me that a writer can also be alive, but it was at the time. I grew up in Sacramento, California, and while my hometown gave the world Joan Didion, that was news to me in 1995. I didn’t see it as a place for real-life writers. I experienced Sacramento as a hot, dry, provincial place at war with and simultaneously in love with its own history. I know I’m not alone in having made such a mistake—to assume culture is elsewhere because you can’t see what’s right in front of you. Still, when I moved to New York, every night I scoured the event listings in Time Out or the Village Voice and hustled to about three readings a week. 

Some were fabulous, some were boring, some had only five or six attendees. Hearing Ian McEwan read from Enduring Love (Nan A. Talese, 1998) to just fifteen people at the Chelsea Barnes & Noble—it’s now a Trader Joe’s—taught me a lot about the capriciousness of the book gods. Just a year later, following the publication of Amsterdam (Nan A. Talese, 1999), you nearly had to camp out the night before to hear the new Booker Prize winner read. 

Odd, unexpected, wonderful things happened at readings. Will Self recited a twenty-five-minute section of How the Dead Live (Bloomsbury, 2000) entirely from memory. Jane Smiley led the clutch of people squeezed into Three Lives & Company, in the city’s West Village, in a song. David Foster Wallace held a plastic fork for the entirety of his discussion. (Audience member: “What’s the fork for?” Wallace: “I’m nervous.”) Allen Ginsberg offered me a hug. Jonathan Franzen said something sober and kind about what it would be like to deal with Parkinson’s when I told him my mother had just been diagnosed. He proved to be right.

Fame sometimes altered the air at these events, but it was beside the point. Like many people who go to readings, I wanted to write. To be more exact, I wanted to be a writer. But I wasn’t writing; I was reading a lot of thrillers from the slush pile hoping that the next one wouldn’t be yet another vehicle for a Billy Crystal–type wise guy so common at the time. “Are you a poet?” former U.S. poet laureate Philip Levine asked as he signed one of my books in 1998. “No,” I replied, ashamed of my answer. Fear—fear of being bad—had put a cork in me. A larger issue loomed, though, one much easier to see at a distance of twenty years. I simply didn’t know what I was for; I didn’t understand how to live. I’d spent my life in a classroom. Finally, standing outside of one, answering phones at a publishing house, the enormousness of what I still didn’t know about myself and the world was bewildering. 

I wasn’t looking to be told what to do, but it was comforting and inspiring to hear such brilliant writers talk about what they did with their lives. Susan Sontag speaking on anything was a clinic in passion, how it could be an orienting principle in a life. Albert Murray was a walking example that life really can begin after age fifty; he was fifty-four when he published his first book, The Omni-Americans (Da Capo Press, 1970). The late great reporter Anthony Shadid made you want to go and ask questions of the world, uncover what wasn’t being said. 

Sometimes these messages arrived so perfectly timed, it felt almost mystical. Adrienne Rich may have simply been on tour for her collection Midnight Salvage (Norton, 1999), but she talked about how art must lead to activism. Hearing her say this demolished a false assumption I held—about the necessary separation of art and politics—that I hadn’t realized my liberal arts education had left largely intact. Other more picayune lessons? Saul Bellow turned up in a gangster’s suit, and I left thinking: “Overdress and you wind up looking like you’re playing a part.” When Elmore Leonard walked off stage while lighting his cigarette, I realized: “If you’re bigger than the stage, take it with you.”

To this day, even after attending hundreds of readings, and giving hundreds more of my own, I find it hard to be cynical about gigs, readings, tours, and the like: Every single event holds the possibility that someone will leave changed—even the writer. The best writers on the road or onstage know that giving a reading or participating in an event isn’t simply a chance to say what they know. A good public event is more of a dialogue than that. An oral version of what writers do on the page, a reading has no predetermined outcome. In the sacred space of the public event, writers can try things out: a new idea, a way of seeing around what’s in front of us. 

Having grown up in the heyday of post-structural criticism, which touted the idea of the abstract author, I was relieved when I started going to readings to see the forms I loved re-embodied, to see that the novel was made by a human hand, a heart, a mind. The more writers I saw onstage, the more physical the art form seemed to be, the more conceptual theory felt beside the point. John Ashbery seemed flattered by all the work done to figure out what his poems were about, but he also appeared, at good readings, just glad to be there. By the time I saw him read, much too late, he seemed to know his time was brief. 

I had to lose people important to me before I could truly appreciate that a form of living literary history was unfolding before me. It is hard to believe some people will ever leave us, especially our heroes, but then suddenly, abruptly, irrevocably, they’re gone. I’ve spent years discovering how things that are hiding in plain sight—stories, aspects of culture, the dignity of being seen, what so many books I love were telling me—are parts of a history I can only catch glimpses of in person.

As I went to more readings I began listening more closely to the questions authors asked. The questions I heard ranged from the practical—why doesn’t poetry sell more?—to the political: Why can’t we build a society in which a poem is more familiar than a gun? Allen Ginsberg himself asked that question aloud during a three-hour reading he gave at Swarthmore College in 1995, when I was a student. At a reading so wild and strange and sometimes just silly, it was profound to hear the poet ask a question so impractically essential. (This was back when a mere 4 million firearms were manufactured per year and mass shootings were not a daily event.)

Hearing someone ask the questions our culture refuses to ask itself, however impractical or even painful, can feel like an intervention, a way to break the membrane of the unsayable or what has been shamed, pushed aside. Was it naive to think self-promotion, in such moments, had been pushed aside? The words took on extra weight for having been said in a public space, not over the TV. Not prepackaged for the screen, not live before a studio audience but truly alive, in the moment. I felt this during a conversation onstage with Edward St Aubyn in Perth, Australia. What, his books propose, happens to the self after abuse? It was significant that he, the author, was the one raising such questions about his own work: He was not simply saying I survived, but I survived to understand what happened to me. Toni Morrison managed to perform this act of public thoughtfulness for whole generations: What does beauty look like when it is sung through the aftermath of American slavery? I feel something similar happening at Ocean Vuong’s events today for his novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press, 2019), which takes the form of a letter from the son of a Vietnamese refugee to America to his mother, who cannot read in English. Can we talk to the people who won’t understand us, even if they made us? Can a writer talk to the country that refuses to recognize their dignity? 

In the best of times a reading can give its audience the sensation of being somewhere exciting at the start of something new. A new sound. A new voice, a new set of possibilities. A sense that questions of a generation are being treated seriously because—right now—we’re discovering a new way of asking them. I remember feeling this when Colson Whitehead read from The Intuitionist (Anchor Books, 1999) at the Barnes & Noble at Astor Place, in the Village, unveiling his magically real imagination for the first time in the United States. Now, as I type this, from a train station in France, there’s a copy of Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Doubleday, 2016) poking out of the bag of the passenger next to me. Not the first sighting of that book in a person’s hand today either. Maybe reader by reader its questions will make other ones possible.

Twenty years ago I moved to Boston after finally admitting that I was a terrible editorial assistant, and if I didn’t leave and try to write I would regret it forever. Not long after I arrived in Boston, I took the T to the Brookline Booksmith to hear Jhumpa Lahiri give her first public reading from Interpreter of Maladies, her debut story collection published by Houghton Mifflin in 1999. It would go on to sell millions of copies and win her a Pulitzer Prize. Back then, though, I went because I’d read her stories in small magazines, and then in manuscript when it was submitted to book publishers. My girlfriend at the time worked in the industry, and the editor she assisted had received the collection on submission. Here was a whole new sound of love and longing and the vertigo of emigration, gorgeously phrased. Interpreter of Maladies is a book about how to live in a world where the biggest changes in our lives might be accidents of fate, like a still birth, or driven by forces bigger than us, like a nation’s upheaval, or flukes of chance, like buying perfume and so meeting a man at the counter who becomes your lover and changes your life forever. I’d never read a short story writer like Lahiri: one who used images with the precise but mysterious way of a poet, who sounded so much like Chekhov and was uniquely herself, her own voice, at the same time. When my girlfriend couldn’t persuade the editor she worked for to buy it, this failure became part of the running list of reasons we’d quit our jobs and move to Boston. If this is publishing, we told each other, we’re out. Along with Nathan Englander’s debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, and Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, both published by Knopf in 1999, Lahiri’s was a book that said, More is possible. And even though I had no idea what that meant for me as a writer, I took it to heart and quit my job.

At that reading at the Brookline Booksmith twenty years ago, I didn’t know what was next for me as a writer. I was just happy to see in living flesh the author who had lent these forces in her book the snap of intimacy, the weave of lived experience. There were forty people there, a quietness to the room that registered as a kind of anticipation. 

And there, in front of us, was the author, Jhumpa Lahiri. She smiled hugely and admitted that this whole publishing experience was not real to her either, that the book had taken so long to write. When she read, though, her voice was a still, enormous place. A world unto itself. I returned to it on the page not long afterward. Rereading the book, I turned to the back flap and realized that question I’d been chasing—Who are you?—was never really meant for the author. 

 

John Freeman is the founder of the literary annual Freeman’s and the author of several books, including Dictionary of the Undoing, How to Read a Novelist, and Maps, a collection of poems. The third in his series of anthologies on inequality, Tales of Two Planets, featuring new work on the climate crisis from Lauren Groff, Sayaka Murata, Chinelo Okparanta, and Mariana Enriquez, will be published by Penguin in March. Freeman is an artist in residence at New York University.