Come as You Are

To be honest, I love these pants-optional book events…


There is so much to miss, now nine months in. Lipstick, for one. Movie popcorn. A hug from my father. And putting on actual pants and hard-soled shoes in order to bear witness to the book launches of so many friends.

Politics and Prose, Sixth & I, the Gaithersburg Book Festival, the Writers Center. These venues were as familiar to me as my own living room. So was the way to the bar in the home of Mary Kay Zuravleff, the hostess of so many joyful afterparties. How I long to see a sheet cake decorated with an exact replica of a book's front cover again.

Writing is a supremely solitary experience, and I fear that authors right now are being robbed of the communal recognition and applause that go along with an in-person launch, even if that launch is only in front of a book club in a friend’s basement.

“If I write it, they will come no longer.”

This doesn't seem fair.

Like so many Luddites, I didn’t take to Zoom right away. Nor did I have to — unlike my son, Leo, who Zooms all day with his teachers and classmates, or my husband, Karl, whose work calendar is a wall-to-wall monolith of virtual meetings and client presentations. When I open my laptop, it's either to write or to stroll the aisles of eBay.

But then a funny thing happened. In an effort to prepare for a recent Q&A with Kerri Arsenault, I signed up for an event hosted by Belmont Books. For a little over an hour, I had a front-row seat as Kerri read from her beautiful book, Mill Town, chitchatted with fellow author Elizabeth Rush, and answered questions sent out into the ether from other virtual attendees.

After actively avoiding virtual happy hours with friends and the many stops and starts of trying to hold monthly book-club meetings, I have to say: Zooming with favorite authors — I've been up close and personal with, among others, Nick Flynn, Dani Shapiro, and K-Ming Chang — is a pretty great stopgap.

In taking part (and advantage) of the new new-book launch, I’ve found some surprising benefits to staying home. Other than the obvious one (becoming a sentient mullet: business on top and party on the bottom), I've been able to get a peek into the homes — even the bedrooms — of notoriously private people. This sort of access adds a level of intimacy not found under the florescent lights of bookstores.

One writer has what looked like a shofar on her mantel; another sat next to a stack of books arranged like a game of Jenga. One night, I fretted that a particularly over-extended author would never get to that pile of laundry in the corner of her room. On another, I wondered if the author was conducting his virtual event from IKEA. And most recently, I watched a grownup read an excerpt from his latest release with Winnie-the-Pooh (and Tigger, too!) as his backdrop.

Oftentimes, what's on the wall is more telling than what's on the page.

Still, I suppose the best part of attending book events during a pandemic is that I no longer have to put up with that one person who takes over the microphone, holding the audience hostage while he or she asks an endless, usually self-serving question that turns out not to be a question at all. I hate those windbags.

"I read that the novel is dead," proclaimed one such smug sucker after a reading by Jonathan Franzen in the Before Times. Say what you will about Franzen and the unlikable characters who populate his novels, but after watching the author politely rip this guy a new one, I’m quite certain the takedown would’ve been just as satisfying to witness via Zoom.

Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and the author of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.

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