The Dreaded Question: What is a "Reading"?

06/09/2010 10:11 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Before I opened a bookstore, I had only been to a handful of author readings in my life. Now I host them regularly, but I am always conscious of what an inadequate word "reading" is for what goes on when an author comes to discuss and read from their book at a bookstore. As someone once said to me, "calling it a reading is about as exciting as calling sex, intercourse."

For that reason, I find it heartening when I see clips of hundreds of screaming fans barreling toward Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. That I can turn on BookTV and see hundreds of people waiting to hear Robert Reich or Robert Pinsky blows me away. Yet many of us are reluctant to attend a reading because we don't know what one is, and we become afraid that something egregiously uncomfortable, or boring, is going to happen.

Below is a clip of what I think of when I hear the word "reading". It is from an event with Damian Platt, the co-author of a phenomenal new book called Culture is our Weapon: Making Music and Changing Lives in Rio de Janeiro. Platt flew from Rio to six cities in the US to talk with local human rights workers about how groups from Brazil to the States use music and culture to fight back against violence. What the crowd of forty people assembled here in Boston participated in was a fascinating, roving discussion between Platt and three leading figures in our community about human rights across borders and cultures.

It was the first time I've heard the words human rights applied in a conversationally positive and empowering way that rips down borders without sounding condescending, and the first time I've heard the words human rights applied to the city where I live. It's not quite sex but it's a hell of a lot better than intercourse, and almost anywhere you are in America, if there's a bookstore or a library nearby, there's something like this going on.