Writers’ Voices, Readers’ Cravings: Why Reading Is Alive and Well

Those seeking an engaging response to the ridiculously premature predictions of the death of books and/or reading and/or literature need look no further than any of the numerous author readings and book discussions scheduled across the country on an almost daily basis.

And when we’re lucky enough to gather with friends, colleagues, and strangers in a room where several authors have a chance, one after another, to briefly read from, discuss, and sign advanced uncorrected proofs—nearly final versions of books about to be published—it’s all the more clear that great voices, in every sense of the word, are what will keep us going.

The Association of American Publishers Trade Libraries Committee, during the 2011 American Library Association (ALA) midwinter meeting held in San Diego earlier this month, issued what to some would seem to be a quixotic proposal: an invitation to rise—after several days of morning-to-night meetings, social gatherings, and other activities—early enough to hear six disparate authors read and talk at 8 a.m. It’s a tribute to our continuing love for and anticipation of the next great book that so many of us packed into that room to hear the writers and receive free copies of what they are about to publish.

What was particularly striking was how rich and varied those writers’ voices are. Cara Black, discussing Murder in Passy, the next installment in her Aimee Leduc mystery series with its Parisian settings, made us smile with her perfectly pronounced “Bonjour!” Novelist Douglas Kennedy, discussing the themes of love and loss which permeate his forthcoming novel The Moment, enchanted us with a lovely passage read in that soothing British accent which serves as a seductive tool to draw us into what he writes. Hilary Winston’s irreverent sense of humor, timing, and obvious enthusiasm in discussing her soon-to-be released nonfiction book My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me appropriately and enticingly captured the spirit of a writer who decided to respond in kind after a former lover trashed her in a novel that, she said, devastated her by drawing heavily from their most intimate moments together.

Deborah Harkness drew us into her novel A Discovery of Witches by telling us that this story about a 1,500-year-old vampire and an enchanted manuscript found in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, was inspired by a question she asked herself: if you were a vampire and had an extremely long lifespan, what sort of job would you hold? Shilpi Somaya Gowda obviously connected viscerally with many members of her audience in discussing how her novel Secret Daughter explores what happens when a child is given away by her mother.

Even the voice of Jacqueline Winspear, who was unable to attend because she was recovering from a bout with the flu, captured us with her writer’s voice through the advance copies of A Lesson in Secrets, the next in her Maisie Dobbs series of novels set in the period between the first and second world wars.

Completing the sense of author-presentations-as-events was the newest voice of all: twenty-two-year-old Alice Ozma, promoting The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared. We didn’t stand a chance! Hearing Ozma tell us that this was her first public appearance to promote her first book captured us as soon as she stood in front of us. Her obvious love of reading and writing, combined with her description of how she and her father started a “reading streak” which continued with him reading to her for a minimum of 10 minutes each day—generally in the evenings, and often for more than 10 minutes—for 3,218 consecutive days, told us all we needed to know about how reading, writing, and the continuity and culture our writers provide for us remain essential elements of our lives.

And if we’re still in doubt, we need do little more than check our information sources for the readings that are taking place in bookstores, libraries, and other venues nearly every day, then attend as many of them as we can, for that is where new as well as established writers’ voices can be heard, and that is where our literary heritage continues to be sustained.

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