At the risk of stating the obvious, we live in a good town for book lovers. A strong, rich literary history… multiple independent bookstores… three of the country’s premier independent publishing houses… major universities with diverse and thriving writing programs… benefactors who value and support the arts… But one of the most compelling indicators of the Twin Cities’s literary vitality is the breadth and diversity of its literary events. The sheer number of readings on any given day is astounding; more to the point, we have the option of seeing and hearing emerging writers as well as witnessing the seasoned mastery of Pulitzer winners. How and why we choose which events to attend is a curious matter to me, and it was in the forefront of my mind last night.
About 200 of the Twin Cities’s most refined literary enthusiasts took a seat in the Minneapolis Central Library‘s luxurious Pohland Hall on Tuesday, May 29th 2012, to hear Richard Ford (author of Independence Day and, most recently, Canada) kick off this year’s Talk of the Stacks series, a program sponsored by the Friends of the Hennepin County Library. As the start time neared, the lights dimmed, the ten-foot projection screen (twelve? fifteen? I don’t know, it’s pretty big) retracted into the ceiling, and the spotlights amped their beams on the podium, lone and central on the stage before the plush red curtains along the back wall. If the Twin Cities’s diverse literary programming falls on a spectrum, this was the end marked “big-time.”
Talk of the Stacks reaches a lot of readers through its library affiliation, and Ford, of course, sells a lot of books, has a vast readership, and writes really well. So it’s no surprise that a lot of folks came out to see him. But the demographics of this audience struck me instantly: middle aged or older, dressed conservatively–significantly different from, say, the attendees of Super Super Tuesday. Where are the angular haircuts, the just-out-of-college, giddy-about-the-performer audience members? Where are the stylish glasses? Those enthusiastic, young literary types driving much of our literary identity? In my mind, Richard Ford is an icon of contemporary literature: I expected more of a cross-section of the Twin Cities’s literary spectrum to be in attendance. But maybe his appeal is more limited,ore focused than I’d imagined.
Maybe it’s that Ford has already accomplished his greatness, while the younger generation tends to look at and support those who still gleam with the potential to do so. Perhaps its that Ford’s subject matter (typically baby-boomer fare) doesn’t appeal to younger audiences. Or perhaps it’s the very grandeur of the event: the glorification of one man’s work, rather than that of a collective or a community. After a brief introduction, Richard Ford came out and read a forty-five-minute excerpt of his new book. There was no formatting, no performer changes, no intermissions for mingling. No new voice to renew your tired attention span, just a writer and some words in the air.
This was an evening devoted to one author reading one work–and boy did he.
Beginning on page one of Canada, Richard Ford delivered some of the most expert exposition I’ve ever heard. Physical descriptions that continued for pages, and yet delivered information somehow both necessary and intimate. A master of voice in his writing, Ford also gave a masterly reading, his Southern/Montana/Midwest/Northeast lilt carrying a wide range of simultaneous inflections. It was the kind of pure, good writing that made me want to run home and pick up a pen. It was the kind of prose that every good writer has tried and failed to imitate. It is iconic prose.
If the reading was fantastic, so was the Q&A. At one point, an astute audience member asked directly about Ford’s multifaceted dialect: “Do you try to supply the reader with a sense of your distinct cadence?” Ford mulled for a moment, then answered, “I try to confer the freedom to read my sentences however the reader wants, by making the sentences as good as possible.”This line of thinking eventually led him to expound, “A novel’s success depends on two things: 1) that the reader gets to the end of the book, and 2) that there’s no great discrepancy between what I think the book is about and what the reader thinks the book is about.” The highlight of the night, though, came in response to a question about the thematic content of Canada–the book and the country–and what drew Ford to write about it.
“I just like the word: a dactyl, those three soft a’s… I like the look of it on the page. Most books are composed of words that the author simply likes to see on the page,” Ford said. His discussion turned briefly into the nature of language, the behavior of semiotics. He offered a quote from Donald Hall, who was quoting sculptor Henry Moore, to explain the power of a word as both a physical and an aural object: “Never think of a surface but as the extension of a volume,” he said, drawing oohs and ahs from the audience, perfectly receptive to and appreciative of the sentiment. (An interview with Donald Hall from the Paris Review in which this quotation is referenced can be found here). Moore, a sculptor, was talking about surfaces and volumes in terms of physical materials, but for Ford and his audience, words are materials every bit as much as granite. And each of us felt that intuitive distance within each word, the volume of a language there in that room with us, floating in the air among the 200 individuals in attendance. These are the moments that literary events offer: moments that change us all at once, over and over.
Here’s hoping that the next time a literary giant graces our presence, a few more of this community’s diverse participants recognize it for the opportunity it is: an opportunity to grow, to learn, to be inspired and made better.
Have a different take on this event? Chime in on the comments below! 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!