Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The John Hodgman Reading Experience

After reading this McSweeneys piece yesterday (I know, enough with that site!) I was reminded of the time I saw John Hodgman speak, a.k.a. my all-time favorite book reading.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of readings. I don't especially care about meeting an author or finding out what they're like, and I don't harbor any pretensions that I'm going to get some clues about how their mind works. Plus, most of the time these authors aren't exactly the most socially-gifted people in the world, and seeing them in person can actually turn you off from the experience of reading them. I still haven't been able to read Marisha Pessl's "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" after her dry, uninspired reading at a bar in the East Village.

Although there are definitely exceptions, they usually seem qualified in some way. I've really enjoyed the two times I've seen Jennifer Egan speak, but I can't shake the feeling that it may have more to do with the searing crush I developed on her than any particular reading talent on her part (though, of course, she's an amazing writer regardless ) .


I liked hearing Chris Abani speak as well, but what I remember from that reading was not so much the story as it was the bizarre explanation that he wrote what may be the "great transvestite novel" weekday mornings in a Starbucks in Southern California. I also liked Sean Wilsey, but, while he was indeed funny and engaging, what was most memorable was his (very loud) use of the word "motherfucker" during a crowded reading in a Park Slope Barnes & Noble.

Back to John Hodgman.


The one thing he has that so few authors do is a true performative element to his reading. When I saw him tour for the paperback version of "The Areas of My Expertise," the reading featured guitar-playing (along with a theme-appropriate song), a tape deck, consistently funny stories that weren't just rehashed version from the book, and a free gift of "hobo chalk" for the members of the audience!

The highlight of the night came near the end, when he said that he would take some questions from the audience. Due to the "extreme discomfort" caused by this "level of intimacy," Hodgman distributed walkie-talkies to the audience so that they could ask their questions through it and provide a buffer. Of course, they ended up being cheap, ineffective walkie-talkies and while audience members tried to get them to work, everyone else was screaming with laughter at the absurd premise combined with Hodgman's laconic responses: "Are you holding the button down?" "Try holding it up to your mouth." And so on.

Anyway, by taking the time to make his reading something more than it needed to be, Hodgman created an amazing environment and probably sold a lot more copies, too. A year later, I still talk about that reading all the time and definitely still recommend that book to my friends.

So, that's my favorite reading. Anyone else have an especially memorable reading that stuck with them?

11 comments:

Brandon said...

My favorite reading was about two years ago when Garrison Keillor and Billy Collins staged "Dueling Anthologists" at the 92nd Street Y. They had both just published anthologies of poetry not their own. They took turns reading from their respective collections, each time trying to one-up the other with a poem even more hilarious or more touching -- all unrehearesd. You could see how liberated the reading became by comparison as both poets were under no pressure to read their own work. Garrison, Billy, and the entire audience were functioning on the same level, all just enjoying the words in their way.

Brandon said...

And remember when we saw John Hodgman on 14th Street just after we saw Live Free or Die Hard? That was hilarious, considering we had just been watching the "Mac Guy" on the big screen for two hours.

Josh said...

I do remember that. I actually saw John Hodgman 3 times in about two weeks recently, all in different types of environments (Turkish bathhouse, polo grounds, support group meeting). I can't avoid him if I tried!

Ami said...

The best part of the Abani reading was where he told the audience that he had actually hired a transvestite to come to his house and show him how to tuck his junk so that he could more accurately write a description. While obviously a good thing to do for fiction, maybe not such a good thing to announce to a crowded room. The entire audience looked at their hands for the length of that story.

todd said...

I don't think I'll ever forget the Chuck Palahniuk reading at Schuler's where we had to call an ambulance for Shaft. How frightening was that?

I'm debating whether or not I should go see Jonathan Franzen give a reading tomorrow. I mean - he's promoting his memoirs. How interesting could it possibly be?

Josh said...

1. Ami, wasn't that Abani reading bizarre? The contradiction between the stuff he was talking about and his completely sweet and earnest personality actually made it kind of great.

2. Todd, I'd probably end up going to the Franzen reading if I were you, but I'd also probably end up being pissed that I did. He definitely seems like a jerk, doesn't he? That being said, I did read and enjoy "The Discomfort Zone" (parts anyway).

Bryan said...

Yes, what I remember of the Palahniuk reading was quite frightening. And that was my big Lansing send-off. I used the head-wound I got as an excuse my entire first quarter at Portfolio Center.

Megan said...

That Hodgman reading is my absolute favorite as well. The walkie-talkie bit was genius. I love how he refused to talk to anyone even if they were in the front row and couldn't figure out the darn things. He was super-hilarious throughout, especially during the Q&A when he was mean, but one of my favorite bits was when he and his troubador took a long booze break, putting the audiobook (featuring the very funny and very cute Paul Rudd)on a boombox they'd brought, sitting down and taking the time to pour and savour some good liquor. This went on for much longer than a weaker comedian would have dared. But it was perfect. John Hodgman is genius.

Martin said...

Turkish bathhouse?

Josh said...

Ah, the liquor! I forgot about the liquor. Really quite a performance he put on. I've only seen Jonatham Ames once, and he's the only other person I can think of who can do all that stuff and still make it seem somewhatt "literary."

Josh said...

Okay, perhaps not a Turkish bathhouse. Still, I saw him at a PEN Conference party, in Union Sqaure, and on the south end of 7th Ave in Parl Slope, all within about two weeks this summer. He's the dominant pseudo-celebrity in my life!