As a writer with a debut novel out, I’ve spent the past few months reading from my work at various venues, with the aim of seducing potential readers into purchasing a copy of my book. Some borrow it from friends or the library, and many read it on Kindles and smartphones—but I really don’t care how they read it. Besides the many logical reasons people don’t buy books (expensive; no more room on the shelf; a big unread stack of them still waiting beside the bed), there is the sad fact that the very act of reading fiction—translating printed words into characters and events someone else made up—is something much of the population views as passé.
And so my experience this past month was a potent reminder of the power of books.
I was in San Francisco where my friend, the author Kirsten Menger-Anderson, had offered to throw a Russian Winter-themed holiday book party. The front room of the house would be the Book Lab, where kids could write and illustrate their own books; the middle of the house would have food and drink (lots of vodka, of course); and the back room would be equipped with a microphone, where I would read from my novel and the children could read their own creations.
With a big roll of craft paper, we covered the dining room table and put out containers of markers, crayons, and pencils. Kirsten had sewn a collection of handmade “books,” folding pieces of construction paper around blank white ones and stitching the spine with a needle and thread. Some of the booklets were the size of my hand and some (should anyone be daunted by their task) smaller than a Post-It. The booklets looked jolly in their array of colors, strewn on the craft table like a centerpiece. Kirsten printed up a sign saying Book Lab, and switched on the holiday lights—but who knew, we agreed, if the kids would want to do this.
The first guests to arrive were adults; we drank White Russians in the kitchen, as those with children (all of their ages in single digits) began arriving. An hour had passed when I dared peek into the Book Lab, concerned at how quiet it was.
The table was surrounded—by children writing their own stories. Most were so young, their books consisted entirely of illustrations. The older ones incorporated plots and jokes. (One of the boys, being a boy, wrote a book of Bad Words; the first one he came up with was, “Shut up!”) All were engaged in the act of making.
Their industry was encouraging. Yet when Kirsten invited me to the back room to give my reading, I felt the fiction writer’s usual doubt—that anyone would want to hear what I had written. Kirsten announced into the microphone that I was going to read from my book. And I will never forget what happened next.
“Story-time!” I heard from the next room. Little voices saying, “Story-time!” A stream of little girls (with a few boys; the novel-consuming demographic starts young) filed into the back room and piled onto the couch across from me. Their eagerness was a powerful reminder—that amidst the many distracting pressures forced upon the contemporary writer (to blog, Tweet, and Facebook, to cultivate a persona), this business is still, at its core, about telling a good story.
“Warm Moscow morning,” I began, and the children hushed and listened. My novel is partly about a ballerina who works her way up through the corps de ballet; I read a scene where, as a little girl, she auditions for the Bolshoi ballet school, and recalled how it felt to have a parent read to me as a child. Story-time!
I know well the adult conundrum of having just fifteen minutes at the end of a long day, when it’s easier to page through a magazine than take in artful sentences requiring genuine emotional engagement. Why train my attention on a novel, when I can go online to watch one of those computer-animated video clips a friend just e-mailed me? Reading, even listening to a story, takes imaginative effort; it is active, not passive—which of course is part of the pleasure. You as the reader are making it happen.
And the children sitting across from me were rapt.
Because children still see books as magical things. Not old-fashioned or obsolete; to them, books are full of life. (One girl at the party, when it was explained to her that I was a novelist, expressed wonder that such a job even existed; until that day she had viewed books as independent objects, without authorship.)
When I invited the children to read their own books at the microphone, some were too shy, but others narrated their sagas with a pride every honest writer should have. One child explained why she couldn’t read her story aloud: “It only has a title. There are no words inside.” That happens to me, too, I told her.
When, hours later, the last of the guests had filed out, Kirsten and I looked to see if there were any books left in the Book Lab. Every one had been used. And though I was too tired to read even a magazine before bed, I went to sleep with renewed faith in words on the page—and in those words being delivered from one reader to another.
Daphne Kalotay is the author, most recently, of the novel Sight Reading (HarperCollins 2013)—a Boston Globe bestseller also available or forthcoming in multiple foreign editions. Her fiction collection, Calamity and Other Stories (Doubleday) was short-listed for the Story Prize and includes work first published in Agni, Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, and Good Housekeeping, among others. Her award-winning debut novel, Russian Winter (Harper 2010), an international bestseller, has been translated into twenty languages. Her nonfiction has appeared in Poets & Writers magazine and Tottenville Review. Daphne holds a PhD in Modern and Contemporary Literary and an MFA in Creative Writing and has received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, MacDowell, Yaddo, and the Bogliasco Foundation. She has taught at Boston University, Skidmore College, Middlebury College, and the Harvard Extension School and is available for one-on-one consultation through Grub Street. More information at www.daphnekalotay.com or www.facebook.com/DaphneKalotaySee other articles by Daphne Kalotay