Friday, November 12, 2010

"Its good to talk..."

By Russel D McLean

Last Saturday, Fife Libraries hosted a Reader’s Day. Now an annual event, they invite readers to come and mix with authors for a full day of discussion on books. In the morning, the readers split into groups with an assigned author to talk about a book that means a great deal to the author. In the afternoon, they talk to the author about the author’s own work.

It’s a great day, mixed in with panel discussions, quizzes and all kinds of other fun stuff.

But I wanted, today, to talk about my morning session, in which I sat in a room full of Fife’s finest readers to talk Race, Responsibility and A Psychopath Named Mouse as we discussed Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress.

I chose the book because for my money it was one of the first to open my eyes about what crime fiction could really do. It talked about a time and a place that was alien to me and did so in a way that seemed utterly natural and so completely involving that it never once felt like I was “learning” anything. And it talked about issues I had been lucky to avoid, but which I soon understood upon completing the book, or at least felt I had been exposed to.

I chose the book because I had a feeling maybe some of the readers in Glenrothes, Fife, might have the same experiences.

And they didn’t disappoint.

It was interesting to note that only one person in the room was already a convert, and that only one other person admitted they wanted to read Mosley before I put him on the list. Everyone else had been unsure what to expect.

But they all loved the book. And not just because the person who chose the book was in the room. These guys had all gone deep into the text, coming out with opinions and ideas about the book that really got discussion going. The matter of responsibility came up, particularly around the character of Mouse, who everyone felt was more than just the “psycho sidekick” and who toyed wonderfully with their emotions. Charming one minute, and repulsively amoral the next, one woman said she didn’t like him at all, but was so interested to know more about who he was and where he came from, which is why she was so torn when he got away with some terrible things in the novel.

We talked about entering another person’s shoes. How to us, Easy Rawlins lived in world we didn’t know, but by seeing through his eyes we came to understand that world and talk about issues of equality and tolerance. How it wasn’t just about race, but about money and power. How the book was as much about class as anything else, that we could relate parts of Easy’s world to things we knew much closer to home.

In other words, we talked about the book. And we made connections between each other in that room. What happened was that a disparate group of people shared ideas and talked about how a book perhaps changed the way they thought of things or opened them to ideas they hadn’t considered.

I talked a lot when on tour about how bookshops and libraries are more than places of commerce. They are about community. They are places where people come to talk and discuss and debate. Not anonymously or across distance but face to face. Person to person.

The reading of books is a solitary activity in one sense, but the true joy comes in the dissection and discussion of a tale. In the back and forth of ideas and opinions. Its what I love about touring, why I think bookstores and libraries are marvellous places when run with such ideas in mind. In the end its about ideas and reactions. Reading books is an ongoing conversation that starts between reader and text and evolves long beyond that from reader to reader, constantly changing, refining, redefining. I dread to think what the world will be like if this conversation ever ends.


Naomi Johnson said...

I'm standing on my chair and cheering. Excellent post.

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, i like that, libraries and bookstores are more than places of commerce (though there are many people around me that see commerce as the ultimate human activity and everything else being there to serve it, but they're just wrong ;)

And I'll have to read Mosley again. I read "Devil in a Blue Dress" years ago and didn't connect with it at all. Well, I'm older now, so you never know, maybe a little wiser...

Anonymous said...

You know, McLean, you're a pretty insightful guy for a Scotsman. Very well put.

Thomas Kaufman said...

This is exactly what we miss with Amazon and other online sellers. As our local bookstores good into the danger zone, I'm glad there are still places to get together, swill coffee, and talk about the stuff we love to read. Thanks for your insights, Russell.

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