When Books Are Your People: A Belated Readercon 28 Reflection
At the end of June, a little before the official okay was given to release Readercon programming schedules, I jumped the gun and posted the reading and panels I’d be part of this year. To my relief, didn’t have to issue a correct as my schedule stayed put. But I have better reasons than disliking updating posts to be happy about that.
I’m happy about my Readercon schedule because giving a public reading from my debut novel, The Nine, speaking about problematic characters, about characters with disabilities, and about “soul” in stories reinforced so much of what makes me love writing, reading, and talking about both.
In the “The Souls of Stories” panel proposed by Rose Fox and moderated by Cecilia Tan, I found myself in the awkward position of pushing back against an idea Rose had proposed in their description of the panel: “What does it mean to relate to a story the way one relates to people? How does this intersect with the stereotype of the introverted reader who chooses stories over human interaction?”
My answer to this provocative question was, “We can relate to books much the same way we relate to people because reading a book IS a human interaction. A human wrote the damn book!” That got a laugh from the audience — and not, I’m relieved to report, an unkind one — but it also set the tenor of my weekend.
There I was in a hotel outside Boston, its halls literally overrun with authors and editors and readers and critics and bibliophiles of every shape and size, assured in the knowledge that what had brought us together was a fundamental love of books.
Daily conversation lends itself to slightly hyperbolic statements like “I love coffee,” or “I love sunny days.” But however bowled over we might be by clement weather or our morning’s first cuppa, we don’t mean “love” in the same way we do when we say “I love you,” or even when we say we love something much less intimate about someone — “I love your hair,” for instance. There is no real recipient of those earlier statements. Coffee doesn’t care. The sun will shine, or not, without any particular pride-in-performance.
Books are different, though. When we say we love a book, of even just part of a book (its characters, premise, prose, and so on), we speak something that’s not just a compliment to the creator. If that’s all it was, it wouldn’t be much different from loving someone’s hairdo. Instead, we’re realizing the creator’s effort to reach us, and feeling it succeed. The text is the hand that stretches back through time and space, through culture and bias and hope and despair, and tries to give us something. An open door. A moment of solace. A problem to chew on. An image that will haunt us. A promise that, really, things can turn out all right, in the end.
Books may be the most human of all interactions, because they embrace our species’ unique capacity to escape time-binding, to record both the real and the unreal, and to deploy them in perpetual records, offering new (un)realities to others. If you’re the sort of person who would click the link to this blog, I know I’m already preaching to the proverbial choir. But that’s also the point. You go to something called “Readercon” not so it can change your mind about books, but so it can double down on everything that brought you there, absorbing you into the discourse of the written word (and into the Saturday night Miscellany, too).
Of course books are human interaction. Books are our avatars, little pieces of our humanity we package for the delight and edification of others. Sharing those avatars, processing them together, enlarges the semi-private space of the written word.
That’s why giving my first public reading to a room eager to hear more was so important.
That’s why telling Samuel R. Delany that I couldn’t teach my speculative fiction studies class without his scholarship is important.
That’s why putting an ARC in a reader’s hands and then having them return later asking for an autograph is important.
That’s why shaking hands with authors I’ve taught in classes, and authors I love too much to teach, is important.
That’s why meeting critique partners from half a continent away and finding every possible way to tell them how wonderful they are is important.
I was honored, elated, and ultimately exhausted by my time at Readercon. It was a weekend about sharing pieces of soul. In that same panel on the Souls of Stories, Lorrie Kim explained the “soul” of the Harry Potter series is oxytocin, the hormone that most strongly influences social bonding. Maybe the best stories are all oxytocin for the brain, triggering a bonding between reader and text.And really, that’s all I ever hoped to do, as an author. I hope that (to borrow Erik Amundsen’s term) I’ve “ensoulled” The Nine in such a way that it is the right kind of friend to the right person at the right time.
For now, I need to get back to the draft of its sequel. That new, still-growing soul is calling me, too, and its characters are in serious need of dopamine, if I don’t misjudge the peril I’ve left them in.