I showed up early to the 63rd edition of the Friends of the Hennepin County Library‘s Talk of the Stacks reading series featuring Michael Chabon, figuring the free event might draw an enthusiastic crowd. Turns out fifteen minutes wasn’t early enough: I was greeted at the door to the 235-capacity Pohland Hall by apologetic ushers explaining, “There’s no room. The overflow room is full, there’s no room. We’re projecting audio out here, you can still listen and get your books signed after. There’s no room.”
According to reports, people started lining up around 5pm for the 7pm event. The doors opened at 6:15 and the theater was full by 6:30. When I arrived at 6:45, library staff were wheeling chairs around the atrium balcony, encouraging those who wished to remain for the duration–despite not being able to actually enter the venue–to get comfortable. I had no chance of getting inside, yet I couldn’t suppress the grin on my face. Everyone seemed similarly impressed: I overheard local heavyweight author Charles Baxter casually admit, “This doesn’t happen for me.”
To be fair, this event had a few crucial factors going for it: a friday night, free and open to the public, widely advertised, and, in my personal, humble, and apparently widely-shared opinion, a first-rate talent who simply deserves the kind of excitement and turnout he got. But for one of our primary institution’s largest devoted event spaces to scramble under the number of attendees is nothing short of a phenomenon–”The kind of problem we like to have,” as one library employee put it. Michael Chabon, when he took the stage, commented on the situation himself: “There are people standing outside, listening. This never happens. I’m never going anywhere ever again except for Minneapolis.”
A couple pat compliments about our fine metropolis later, Chabon (pronounced (in case, like me, you’ve never been sure) “Shay-bawn,” stress on the “shay”) embarked upon his reading. Here to promote his recently published and universally critically acclaimed new novel Telegraph Avenue, he read a first-person narrative that existed somewhere between an introductory essay and the type of detailed exposition that often sprouts up in his work: exhaustive lists, urbane vocabulary, astute and sweeping observations. Being one of the thirty or forty individuals listening to him without the benefit of seeing whether he was reading from a book or not, and having not yet begun the book myself, it wasn’t entirely clear whether the piece came from Telegraph Avenue or if it had been penned for this specific occasion. It traced a young child’s experience with race, and a young adult’s experience with racism; the piece was elegant, writerly–even pulitzerial. I was so swept up by the imagery and delivery that I’d resigned myself to thinking this was an excerpt just about the time Chabon concluded the piece, saying, “Just as in Kavalier and Clay, just as in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, I found myself chasing something that I’d never lost, yet that I’d always longed for.” I was not alone in being stunned, pulled from what I thought was fiction back into reality: he’d been talking about himself the whole time. Those events he’d described for the last twenty minutes actually happened. It was as clear a closing sentence as any ever written, yet the audience both inside the theater and those of us in the atrium sat in fazed silence, still revising our interpretations of what we’d heard. “. . . And that’s the end of that,” the author confirmed, urging us out of our momentary lapse and into our rightful applause.
That his introductory essay might be confused for a major literary work seemed to fit the theme of the evening: too successful for it’s own good. An overflow of attendees for an overflow of skill seemed fitting. And I must say: any community so committed to hearing an author read that they’d stick around for an hour without even seeing the event is one I’m proud to belong to. Or maybe we all just wanted our books signed–either way, good for us, Twin Cities.
Chabon went on to read a passage from the novel, and there was no confusion this time: even without visual aides, a master storyteller was at work with the sharpest tools in his kit: words and language. For me, hearing his voice was as fulfilling as watching him, and surprisingly little was lost. The audio quality was excellent, thanks to the speakers library staff had wired out to us. Other than a stray facial expression, what does looking at a reader contribute to a literary event? Of course, there are a wide and wonderful variety of literary performances where visibility is crucial, but for a reading, in this purest sense, don’t we attend to hear an author’s cadence? To learn the emphasis and rhythm, the pace and tone as the writer designed it–to see how well it matches the voice as it plays in our heads, or how different the renditions might be? We attend for the proximity, that miraculous transformation when something as abstract as an admired author becomes concrete, a human with stiff ankles and jetlag, who worries about dentist appointments and stops at red lights like the rest of us. We attend readings not to look at a person but to straighten a stray tangent in our lives–an epiphany we gained from someone else’s insights, a new vision of the world that someone else’s vision helped bring into focus–we attend because our individual narratives seek a parallel against which we can strengthen our own resolve.
Or maybe we just want to get our books signed.
Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event? Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! Be sure to check the schedule to the right and the Twin Cities Literary Calendar and be at the next LitSeen attended event. See you around!