The Magazine

Have Book, Will Travel

The author is sold, along with the text.

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By THOMAS SWICK
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In Chicago, for whatever reason, authors felt no need to congregate. At least not in parking lots. I searched in vain for the black-and-white Hawaiian shirt of Paul Theroux, whom I had listened to in an airless tent a few hours earlier. He had flattered his audience, comprising of about 200 people (in a city of three million), congratulating them for being readers. They were, he said, "like the early Christians, gathering in tents." He told of talking to a young woman recently, a college graduate, and mentioning a book by Robert Louis Stevenson. She had never heard of him.

"Didn't your parents read to you when you were a child?" Theroux had asked her incredulously.

It occurred to me that writers' concerns about the decline of reading stem from more than just a self-preservation instinct; they are tied, as well, to the nearly-as-powerful need to connect. You don't have to read me, but read so you can talk to me. All writers were readers first, and most continue their lives as more prolific readers than writers; with fellow readers--unlike with fellow writers--we feel a noncompetitive bond. (There are no prestigious workshops, or covetous magazine assignments, or Pulitzers for readers.) Tell a writer you write and depression sets in; tell a writer you read and gratitude blossoms. Especially now, in the Blog Age, when it seems that more people want to write than to read (not realizing that you need to read in order to write anything that is worth reading, or hasn't already been written). But this is the inevitable result when a culture prizes self-expression over learning. It is the written equivalent of a room in which everyone is talking and nobody is listening, particularly to the dead. Literature, like French, has ceased to be the lingua franca for the so-called educated crowd.

But this wasn't what I wished to discuss with Theroux. I wanted to ask him why he ignored my book, which my blurb-seeking publisher had sent him, after choosing one of the chapters for The Best American Travel Writing 2001.

I carried my plate of hummus and bruschetta and sat down at a table of secondhand booksellers. Used books were more a part of the Printers Row Book Fair than of the other fairs I'd been to. One of the sellers said there used to be even more secondhand stalls, before the chain bookstores became involved and inevitably changed the character of the fair. A woman with short brown hair and dirty fingernails told me, too, that many older, even middle-aged, secondhand booksellers (middle-aged and secondhand--a dire combination in the country of the next new thing) gave up on book fairs because of the physical labor involved. Ultimately, there is a lot of heavy lifting in literature.

On Sunday, I woke up well before my 2:30 presentation. I was scheduled to appear with a professor of Buddhism who had written a book about the religion and his experiences teaching it in Cambodia. I was ambivalent about panels, not just because the audience is doubled for your potentially one-bettered performance, but because they had produced, at previous fairs, my greatest public debacle as a writer, and my finest hour.

In Miami, I had followed the author of a book about her multicultural neighborhood in Queens. She had brought slides, recordings, and her sizable talents as an actress and mimic, recreating accents that ranged from street black to Ukrainian immigrant. It was an impressive performance, and a long one, as the coauthor, her husband, hadn't been able to make the trip and she took the time allotted to (at least) two speakers. When she finally finished, and the lights came back on, a crew appeared to dismantle her audio and visual aids. During the lull a large portion of the audience, either having seen what they'd come for or believing the session now over, got up and walked out, heartlessly passing in front of me as they went. The moderator, inexplicably at a loss, made no announcement. I watched the agonizing faces of friends who stayed to lend their support and thereby magnified my humiliation by being witnesses to it. Eventually I took the podium, and read a short section in a voice of controlled hurt.

In Austin, things worked out differently. As viewers of Book-TV know, readings at the Texas Book Festival take place in the state capitol. My panel, probably because it contained two Texans, was put in the House Chamber. The three of us looked out from our hillock over a plush plain of leather swivel chairs, all of them occupied by make-believe legislators. Lesser would-be officials speckled the balcony.