By Alex Green
I've often joked with my customers that if they could provide me with a more adequate description of an evening at my bookstore with an author than "a reading", then I would give them $25,000. The only reason the comment is a joke is because I do not have $25,000. Otherwise, I have taken my father's comment as gospel on the issue of book talks: "Calling one of these events 'a reading' is about as interesting as calling sex, 'intercourse'." There is a reason fathers are wiser than sons.
Describing the importance of an author fielding questions from an audience and reading from their book requires a description of unfortunate circumstances. When I was growing up, Salman Rushdie had a bounty on his head for writing one of the least politically inspiring, and most dense and obfuscating works of fiction I have ever attempted to read. I maintain to this day that "The Satanic Verses" resulted in the issuance of a Fatwah against Rushdie because it was so unreadable that the Ayatollah could treat it as a blank slate. You could have said, "it's about unicorns" and I could not have disagreed.
That year Rushdie came to read at a nearby bookstore and someone threw a pipe bomb across the sales counter. Until the day the store closed, the owner refused to mend the hole in the wall. Thankfully no one was injured, but it was a reminder that even senseless writing can be enough of a threat to the ignorant to give them cause to terrorize the innocent.
This week, I have to take an aside from my usual writing about Waltham writers to mention Xu Lai, a prominent Chinese dissident blogger and novelist who was stabbed in the restroom of a Beijing bookstore after 'a reading' this week. Blogging in China represents one of the sole outlets to circumvent the oppression of the Communist regime. Xu, who writes a regular blog called ProState in Flames (read more here) was stabbed repeatedly in the stomach by two men, one of whom declared a statement to the effect, "You know why this is happening to you."
Xu's case strikes a chord with me because a year ago my bookstore hosted a prominent author whose discussion was recorded for a broader audience. After the talk, the author asked that we destroy the tapes of his discussion. His family in his country of origin would be tortured, humiliated, and degraded even further than they already had been if his voice was disseminated making the honest statements he had given to my customers that day.
I cannot fault most people for believing that what is commonly called, "a reading" is an interminable, boring, and uninspiring way to spend an evening. To me, these readings are signs of a dissident world, full of daring and courageous people who have sacrificed to popularize ideas which only make their lives more difficult, more fragile, and more heroic. I await the day when the radicalism of what is frequently called "a reading" approximates the political and artistic synonym of "sex". In the interim, I hold dearly the comment posted on a blog and reported in the New York Times Monday, regarding Xu. "Comrades, netizens, such a despicable trick cannot stop the progress of Chinese people towards freedom and democracy, because this is the tide of history."
Alex Green is the owner of Back Pages Books, an independent bookstore on Moody Street in Waltham.