I tell you about these not just to encourage you to come, though I definitely encourage you to come. It'll be fun! I tell you because I want you to get a sense of what these events are like, at least for me.
Here's the thing. Writing any book is a mug's game. You spend years -- years! -- of your life up to your armpits in interviews, travel, and research into a topic that almost by definition is arcane. I mean, if there isn't already a book on it answering any questions I could likely answer, it can't be that important, right? There's like a skillion books out there, and I'm not so smart. If I looked around and said, "hey, there ought to be a book about ..." it means nobody in all of recorded history has so far thought it important enough to write a book about before now. So it's not likely a topic that's keeping people up night wondering about it, right?
So take a topic that nobody's thinking much about, and then dive into it headfirst and splash around in it for, oh, say a decade. That's how long I messed around with John Lawson and his journey. I stumbled onto him in around 2008 or 2009, while I was researching On the Grid, my book about infrastructure. And A Delicious Country came out a couple months ago, so that's ten years plus I spent on this. Some of it walking the surface of this remarkable planet, to be sure, but an awful lot of it spent holed up in libraries and my office all by myself, poring over books and articles and maps and artifacts and God knows what all else, all with some, commonly tangential, connection to Lawson. With, again, no enormous community tapping their feet and pointing at their watches, saying, "Lawson! Dammit, where's our book on Lawson?"
But that's books. I take a notion and I spend a decade or so rummaging around in the closets of the culture and I find some stuff and I tell a story, and I trick some publisher into putting it between covers.
And then, finally, I get to have some fun.
Well, no, okay -- I admit. I find the whole thing fun. The hours, weeks, years at the desk? I love that. Developing an entire library on a topic? Check. Talking to people who find this topic as interesting as I do? Walking all over everywhere looking for traces of my topic? Finding freaky pictures and objects that from walls and shelves forever after will remind me of this topic, this project, period of my world? Check.
But, finally, readings.
At bottom, for the tiny moments of readings, I get to live my preposterous dream. All I've ever wanted to do was write books, and now here I am, and I get to stand in front of people and wave in the air copies of ... my books. My first job in publishing was working at a bookstore. We were all nascent writers, and we used to get boxes of books from various publishers and distributors, and when it was time to put price tags on them we'd stroke them, hold them next to our cheeks, caress them. "One day," we'd murmur. "One day, someone will open a box and out will come MY book." And when I do readings I get to remember: that day has come.
It's funny. I taught at a conference once, and during one class one of the students asked me what it was like to get a box at your house and open it up and there's your book. And I was all set to play the cynical aesthete, the over-it author: "Oh, it's really about the work; the book itself is nice, but the point is that you've poured your ..." blah blah blah. Instead, actor and writer Sarah Thyre, also studying in the class, spoke up. She had published a memoir, and she jumped in front of me to answer: "It's as awesome as you thought it would be," she said. And she talked about how thrilling it was, that moment.
And I thought, how generous. Here was I about to try to act like I was all over this moment, but instead she owned it -- and shared it. Since then I've followed her lead, and talked about my old bookstore days and the unadulterated thrill of getting that package full of your books.
I mean it's weird -- you can't fail to have a least a cringe of, "really? all this fuss for something I did? um ... sorry...." plus there's always a fly in the ointment. The delivery driver leaves the book on your porch, and then it rains all day before you get
But anyhow there it is. It's a book -- it occupies space, it has weight, it exists, and people can do what you've worked towards and dreamed of, and read what you've written. And then you get to stand up in front of them and share it. You get to say why you think it was worth all this time and effort, what you think you've learned and they'll learn and we'll all learn. And you get to act charming and cut monkeyshines and crack jokes, and sometimes they laugh, and that's ten years of work worth it right in that moment.
Mind you sometimes they don't laugh and sometimes they don't come. Bookstores don't do the publicity you wish they did, publishers don't support your book, the press ignores it (back when there even was a press -- remember the press?), radio and tv shows refuse to book you. You show up at a bookstore for an event and here comes 7 o'clock and there's you and the friend who came with you and one profoundly embarrassed bookstore employee and then after a while you all go home, or you and your friend go out for a beer and a laugh. But the thing is, once that happens -- and it always happens at some point -- then you're inoculated; then nothing can be worse, more surprising. You learn that any book event is not a referendum on whether you're good or whether your book is good or whether the bookstore did sufficient publicity or the publisher spent enough ad dollars or anything else. Sometimes it's just a nice evening -- or a stormy one. Or there's a game on, or just nobody happens to care.
But sometimes people do come, and then you get to talk, and strut, and laugh, and you get to share thing thing that you spent a decade on. And that's just fun. That's all there is to it. It's just fun.
It's not just in-person readings, either. You get to do things like go on the radio -- here with Frank Stasio of WUNC's "The State of Things" or on Walter Edgar's Journal in South Carolina. I will even get to be on TV -- I'll be on the wonderful NC Bookwatch un UNC-TV with DG Martin some upcoming week (we've recorded, but the episode isn't scheduled yet).
But here's the point, or at least I think it's the point. I wrote a book. I noticed a thing, I got all excited about it, and I got my agent and a publisher (and in this case MIT and the Knight Foundation) to agree to give me enough time and money to make a book about it, and now here's the book. And now I get to talk about it, and try to tell you why I think the whole enterprise was worth undertaking.
Come on out and give me a chance to convince you.