Sunday, November 8, 2009

Why I Never Read

For an event at a library for my newly released paperback of The Last Dickens, one newspaper column listed “a reading by Matthew Pearl.” I have to confess the truth, though: my readings have very little reading in them.

Let me say, I have great respect for authors who stand in front of a room and read a chapter or extended section of their work aloud. Maybe my attention span wanders too easily, because when I've tried to do a straight reading I'd start thinking about what I'd eat for dinner and whether I went to third grade with that guy in the back of the room, and whether he once stole my Social Studies notebook.

Pretty soon after starting my public speaking career, I began reading less and less. Instead, I'd talk about how I started writing, about the bizarre experience of book tours, about the argument I'd had with my publisher about the book cover design--the kind of thing I'd do at dinner with friends. I felt more comfortable this way and I felt my audience perk up, too. I'm sure some authors have reading voices that would make James Earl Jones proud, but I'm not Darth Vader and I'm pretty sure my writing voice is more interesting than my reading voice. That's probably why they never ask me to narrate my audio books. Besides, the nice folks who go to the trouble of coming out to an event and hopefully buying a book can read without any help from me. If I can give an interesting behind-the-scenes peek at the creative or publishing process that enriches their reading, I feel like I've done my part.

Any author will tell you how hard it is to predict turnout for an author event. There's so much to compete with, especially in big cities. Many other things, like movies and TiVo, also conform more flexibly to most people's schedules, whereas a 6:30pm or 7:00pm weeknight author event is just about the most inconvenient time for many people getting home from work to rest or be with their family. The most inconvenient time, except for any other time. I try to do my part by keeping my events moving at a brisk pace. The times I've done events in Europe, I'm always struck by how long they go and also how little I actually speak! Usually, you're given a very long introduction, maybe as long as a half hour, and people ask extremely long, academic-ish questions.

During his reading tours in the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens would read, but not in a way we're used to. Dickens had extensive experience as a stage actor, and used his skills to actually perform his scenes and characters. In The Last Dickens, one scene depicts one of Dickens's readings in Boston, at the Tremont Temple, when a stalker is somewhere in the dark auditorium ready to strike, and the hero, Dickens's Irish porter, must find and stop the threat. I guess on some level it's my fantasy about the author-event-as-adventure.


Anonymous said...

You're very amusing and energetic when you speak. I think you are more of an academic and maybe that's why you are more comfortable talking rather than reading.

Do you WANT a stalker? I'm sure there's someone in Cambridge/Boston who'd be happy to oblige.

Matthew Pearl said...

Having some experience teaching does definitely factor into it, I think you're right. I also think straight reading is a tradition in MFA programs and many writers think of it as the only way to do an event.

As for a stalker, it is probably more fun to imagine in a story than to have as the stalkee.

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