Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Last Book Reading

by Matt Richtel

Tomorrow night, I read at Book Passage, one of the iconic independent bookstores, run by Elaine Petrocelli, one of the industry's true pioneers and titans.

On Monday night (last night), I was supposed to read at another Bay Area book institution, Cody's Books in Berkeley. Supposed to. As you may know, Cody's abruptly closed its doors over the weekend. Herewith is an essay I wrote about my most surreal ever book reading -- on the concrete outside a dead giant.

BERKELEY - In the window of Cody's Books, a venerable independent bookshop, a yellow sign reads "bringing writers and readers together since 1956."

But the iconic Berkeley bookshop, which survived the revolutions and protests that passed before its once profitable doors, abruptly closed up last weekend, without warning, having given in to the titanic foes of e-commerce and chain stores.

So on Monday night, Cody's brought together its very last writer and reader. The writer was me. I was scheduled to give a reading from my thriller, Hooked. Even though I learned of the store's closing on Sunday, I showed up at Cody's Monday night just in case some prospective readers came too, expecting the show to go on.

One reader did. She stood wearing a boiled wool yellow jacket with her arms crossed, reading a white sign on Cody's door explaining management could no longer afford to stay in business.

"Are you here for the reading?" I asked.

She nodded. I introduced myself as the would-have-been reader. She introduced herself as Ralda Lee, a long-time Berkeley resident. She said she'd been forwarded an email invitation from a friend of mine advertising the reading. She'd heard that the store had closed, but that I might be coming by to intercept book-reading attendees caught unawares.

"I wanted to support you," she said. "I know what it's like. I'm an actor."

"So should we do a reading?"

"Why not."

In front of Cody's is a cement bench, in a circle, with flowers and foliage in the middle. Ralda the reader and I sat on the outside of it. I pulled out my book. But before I could commence The Last Reading, she and I started chatting about life.

She told me that she has a son-in-law who had been a reporter many years earlier for the New York Times. She'd said she'd just returned from Valdez, Alaska, where she'd been in play. She'd always wanted to act, but she never quite got to develop her craft,

"But I got married, and then knocked up," she said. Instead of acting, "I sat inside for 50 years."

She described herself as "older than 70," but, with a laugh, declined further specificity.

I told her about my job as a reporter, and that my wife is expecting our first child in September. We talked about how I was trying to figure out how I would balance my own passions - for journalism and writing - and the stress-free love I want to give my son-to-be.

At one point, I got a phone call, which I felt obliged to take because it was from my boss. And when you're a journalist and your boss calls, you answer, even if you're in the middle of inpatient surgery, let alone a book reading. As I talked, I saw her open my book and start to read. When I got off, she looked up at me.

"I'm Hooked," she said.

I said: "Let's do this reading properly."

I took the book from her, and I read a couple of paragraphs. As I did, I felt particularly self-conscious. Instead of reading to a smattering of folks, I was reading to one person, whose eyes I could feel studying me. It was tougher than usual to keep my face in the book, rather than look up and make eye contact.

I, like other readers I know, have a love/virulent hate relationship with book readings. We love the readings. But we live in abject terror the 5 minutes before they start. The terror comes from not knowing whether anyone (other than a spouse) will show up (and the spouse already has heard all the jokes).

Sitting on the cement bench outside Cody's, I was grateful to have met just one reader. Just us two book people, chatting, a reminder of the writers and readers who had gotten together to share a moment, ideas, questions and answers, philosophies, and then go our separate ways.

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