Over the past two nights, I went to two book readings. Both featured genre authors, both were well attended, and both were—wait for it—fun. I go to a lot of readings, but fun isn't usually a word I associate with them. Interesting? Yes. Insightful? Sometimes. Always worth leaving the house for? Mmm... not necessarily. Book readings are kind of a crapshoot, honestly, and it almost always depends on how much energy and charisma an author can summon in the midst of an exhausting book tour.
But the ones this past Monday and Tuesday out at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing were both great. Monday's featured Jo Walton, author of Among Others; Tuesday's featured John Scalzi, author of Fuzzy Nation. Both of these writers are pretty amazing, and both would be worth making an effort to see and hear at just about any event—but at Powell's, both of them also did something that too few touring authors do. They put some effort into their readings.
Maybe "extra effort" is the term to use, there, since it's hardly fair to say that reading one's work in front of a bunch of strangers is anything less than a horrifying torture chamber of horror. But for most authors, readings stop there. Readings almost always hew to a predictable, tiresome formula: A quick intro followed by a rote reading, followed by a Q&A in which they answer Qs they've been A'd a billion times, followed by a shuffling signing line. Too often, that's the best-case scenario, but oh, so many things can go wrong: Sometimes the author isn't even very good at reading their stuff! Sometimes they pick a section of the book to read that's boring or bewildering! Sometimes it all feels like school! Or worse—church! Book readings: HAVE THEY BEEN A CRAPSHOOT SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME?
This week's readings at the Cedar Hills Powell's, though, offered more. On Monday, Walton was featured in conversation with Ada Palmer, whose first novel Too Like the Lightning is coming out next year. Even a simple thing like that—having two very smart women at different stages in their careers, discussing and debating writing, genre, and publishing—made the event fantastic. Walton also did something I wish more authors would do: Instead of reading from her most recent work, The Philosopher Kings, she read from her next book, which she's still working on. That's something you can't get anywhere else, and it offered even more stuff for Walton, Palmer, and the audience to talk and think about. So: Good conversation, a reading of something the audience couldn't hear anywhere else, and that followed by an in-depth Q&A along with a song from Palmer and her singing partner. Here's how good it all was: Even though I've already got Among Others at home, I bought two more of Walton's books, then added Palmer's to my to-read list for 2016.
Scalzi's reading, meanwhile, opened with local musical duo the Doubleclicks, who played "Nothing to Prove" and then, with Scalzi playing questionable ukelele and doing an even more questionable Robert Smith impression, "Friday I'm in Love." Then Scalzi read something that, again, those in attendance couldn't get anywhere else: The first chapter of his upcoming project, an in-progress urban fantasy. Then: A lively Q&A that Scalzi treated as much like a standup set as anything else, before Scalzi ended the night by asking everyone in attendance to buy a book before they left, and not even necessarily one of his—just a book. There are any number of reasons bookstores do signings, and not all of them are about moving books—they build loyalty to and community within the store, for example, and they establish relationships between authors and readers, and readers and booksellers—but having Scalzi remind everybody Hey, maybe support local bookstores if you want them to stick around, and, you know, might as well, since you're here already was a pretty great note to end on. Here's how good all of that was: I picked up the first installment of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, and then, after beers with friends, stayed up late to finish my copy of Scalzi's latest, The End of All Things.
I noticed some of the same people in the audience at both Walton and Scalzi's readings, and part of that, for sure, is the fact these two authors work in science fiction and fantasy, which tends to have dedicated readers who crossover between genres and writers. But I'd bet that part of that, too, is due to the fact that those attending Walton's reading had an excellent time—it's a lot easier to lure people back to another reading, the following night, when they're still feeling good about the first one. Not only that, but I bet they'll be back the next time Walton comes to town—just as those who were at Scalzi will come back next time he's in town. Or come back for an entirely different author, in the hopes that their reading might be even half as good. These people will keep buying those authors' books, and (hopefully) they'll do so from places like Powell's, which—unlike chain bookstores, unlike Amazon—puts in the time and effort to make things like author conversations and Doubleclicks songs part of an evening. If the usual, predictable book reading formula is starting to show its age, looking at how—and why—Walton and Scalzi read they way they did is a pretty good way to see where readings should go next.