When words are given a new dimension: The resurgence of book readings

Meike Wijers

Book Readings

Neil Gaiman, a most popular reader of his work. Photographs by Chuck, used under Creative Commons licence

Comedian, writer and performer Zoe Norton Lodge stares solemnly at the audience, an oversized and medieval-looking book on her lap, while she reads her story about teenage ‘bitches’, a mother who can fly and a Which Dad is the Drunkest competition. She sits in a large, red velvet upholstered armchair in the middle of the stage at the Giant Dwarf Theatre in Redfern. This is Story Club, a monthly storytelling night with a simple premise, described on the theatre’s web page: ‘We pick a theme. We get the best people we can find to write a story around that theme. They sit in an armchair and read it to you. You LOL. You drink.’ And laughing out loud, that is exactly what the audience does when listening to Zoe’s story.

“There is something joyous about the experience of sharing something quite personal with a lot of people. I think it helps me be a better writer,” says Zoe. Along with Ben Jenkins, also a writer and comedian, she co-founded Story Club when they were students at the University of Sydney in 2009. “The thing that makes Story Club what it is, is that the stories are always true and they are revealing, embarrassing and personal,” she says.

These ingredients turned out to be a recipe for success. From a small event attended by 20 people, mostly students, Story Club has evolved into a night of spoken word that sells out a 250-seat venue. The audience is diverse. “A wide demographic of people come, from retirees to high school students. I suppose it is because the fundamental thing about it is someone telling an embarrassing story. Who doesn’t like that?”

Live story telling events can also be found in the most expected place: the library. Iona Uzell, public programs officer at Waverley Library in Bondi Junction, has worked hard over the last two years to get more people to come to author events. “When I first took over they had been doing author events for years, but there was probably an average of eight to 12 people who would come to these events. Now we average 40 to 50 people,” she says.

On a Wednesday evening, the library is buzzing. Over 200 people have gathered for the book launch of Mum, I Wish I Was Dead by 24-year old Adam Schwartz. He wrote a book about his seven-year struggle with depression as a teenager. “I feel a bit nervous,” Adam says shortly before he steps in front of the audience to read from his work. “I didn’t write the book for myself, I was no longer depressed and I was ready to move on with my life. I wrote it to give kids who struggle with depression hope that there is help out there,” Adam says.

A few days later on a sunny Saturday morning, the library is congested with strollers. Beth MacGregor talks about her book Helping Your Baby To Sleep. Mums nibble on cake provided by the library and dads rock their babies while attempting to simultaneously pay attention to Ms MacGregor. It is a very different atmosphere compared to the book launch days earlier. Iona says that this is what the library is aiming for: to cater to all the different demographics that visit the library. “The idea is that books come alive.”

According to Katie Christou, venue services manager at the City Recital Hall, author events with a prominent author are usually more popular compared to events about a certain topic. “Neil Gaiman came to the City Recital Hall in January. Everybody just wanted to see him, they would have been happy with anything he had to say. It’s such a rare opportunity to hear the words spoken by the person who wrote them. It is very different to just reading them straight off the page. It brings a whole new dimension to the words. You get a better understanding of what their experience is and what they are trying to say, which makes it a much more intimate experience.”

Gina Louise, librarian at Newington College, goes to book readings three to four times a year. “It’s a great way to engage deeper with the author’s writing by gaining an understanding of their beliefs, personal history and experiences and what they are hoping to achieve with their writing.” Gina’s most memorable book reading has been Neil Gaiman at the City Recital Hall. “I love his wild imagination and love of reading – and libraries! It’s really great to hear such passion.”

Zoe Norton Lodge says the audience can be a great resource to a writer. “You get this really instant response to your writing. People are also quite happy to come up to you afterwards and tell you what they think, which I love.” Her debut Almost Sincerely comes out in paperback on July 1st.

“It’s funny, I’m more nervous about it coming out as a book than I was about reading it out loud to an audience. I guess in front of an audience, once you’re finished, it sort of evaporates. The idea that it is on permanent record now in a book is a lot scarier to me for some reason.”