The most common reaction I got when I told people I was going to Portland's first-ever installment of Naked Girls Reading was a mash-up of concentration and confusion. My social circle—as all social circles should—generally consists of people who appreciate both literature and naked women, but the idea of the two of them together seemed to throw a wrench into things. "So... what's the point?" one friend asked, thinking hard. "Does them being naked... add anything?" asked another. And: "Did you feel like a lecherous perv? Yeah. I bet you felt like a lecherous perv. Perv."
And then there was the simple, correct reaction of my friend Grant, who wrote me back three seconds after I emailed him to see if he wanted to attend the reading with me.
(Grant also tagged along to the burlesque show you guys [hilariously] thought I'd suffer through for Worst. Night. Ever.; to throw even more déjà vu around, Portland's Naked Girls Reading was put on by several of the organizers and participants of the local burlesque production Rosehip Revue, formerly known as Cuda Cabaret.)
But back to the other questions: No, I didn't feel like a lecherous perv. Yes, them being naked does add something. (Boobs!) And the point is... well, the point is that it's naked girls reading. I guess you're either cool with that or you're not, and after about 10 seconds at last Saturday's event, I decided I was very cool with it.
It's an unfortunate fact that the worst part of most book readings—aside from the inevitable struggling writer in the audience who insists on asking the author if they can talk a little bit about their process—is the reading itself. I don't know how many times I've been to different Powellses to see however many readings, but I can count on one hand the number of times the reading itself has been anything more than a rote recitation of a book that most people in the audience have already read.
So maybe the best part about Naked Girls Reading was that the readings themselves were pretty great, and, considering the whole nudity thing, surprisingly demure: Organizers Sophie Maltease and Rayleen Courtney kicked things off with some Shel Silverstein poems; Baby LeStrange read from The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death; Maltease read from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot; Kit Katastrophic read from The Little Prince after noting that yes, it was indeed a pop-up edition; Courtney read from American Rose (presumably the same copy she reviewed for the Mercury a while back); and Seattle's Heidi Von Haught read the part about Vogon poetry from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The main difference between this and a reading featuring clothes wasn't, in fact, the nudity—it was the fact that those each of the women were personally invested and excited about the books they'd chosen to read from. It's remarkable how much this matters, how much more interesting it makes things; I was even entertained throughout Katastrophic's reading, even though all things even remotely related to The Little Prince inspire me to scan the ceiling for beams while tying whatever is closest at hand into a hangman's knot.
And then, yes, the nudity: Aside from jewelry and glitter (even pube glitter! I didn't even know that was a thing!), none of these women wore much more than high heels; sometimes they sat in a chair, legs crossed; sometimes they stood matter-of-factly at a microphone stand; sometimes they paced the stage. But skin aside, and as Paul Constant noted of Seattle's Naked Girls Reading series, "the titillation part of the evening ended fairly quickly." I'm as delighted to look at beautiful naked women as anyone, but the event didn't have the same vibe as a strip club or even a burlesque show. The nudity might be the hook, and also, yay for hot people being naked, but it's weird how quickly one becomes acclimated to it—thanks to Maltease's smart, clear, and commanding reading of Pale Blue Dot, for example, I was both surprised and kind of proud of myself when I realized I was paying more attention to Sagan's ideas than to Maltease's body. Typing that out, I'm wondering if there's something horribly wrong with me.
(It's also worth noting that the crowd seemed to be evenly split between men and women, and everyone there was cool, i.e., not lecherous pervs. The steep price of admission—$15-25—probably has a lot to do with that, but it was still kind of remarkable that the only time anyone shouted "WHOOOOOO!" at the stage was when it was announced Von Haught would be reading Douglas Adams.)
So in conclusion: Naked girls and books? Yes! And a lot of the touring authors who swing by Powell's to sell their stuff could learn a thing or two from an event like this about what it is, exactly, that makes a reading worth going to.