I have been to a number of book readings in my day. They are usually fairly staid affairs. The author reads an excerpt using his or her best read-aloud voice, all the correct inflection, and just the right amount of feeling. The audience listens raptly, chuckling good-naturedly when appropriate, nodding respectfully in agreement at all the poignant parts, and otherwise just smiling attentively. When the reading is complete, the author takes questions. “Tell us about your method. Do you have a writing routine?” someone will ask. Or: “Who are your inspirations?” All in all, author readings are predictably calm affairs.
This past Tuesday, however, I went to a very different kind of reading. B.J. Novak, of The Office and The Mindy Project fame, was in town. He is the author of One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, which I reviewed in March, shortly after it was released. But this reading was to promote his new book, The Book with No Pictures, which came out last Tuesday.
Not surprisingly, it was a packed house. But, unlike most readings I attend, the audience was made up of equal parts hipstery Emory students and . . . four-year-old children. Did I fail to mention that The Book with No Pictures is a kid’s book?
The concept of the book is simple (and pretty obvious from the title). It is a “ridiculous” and “preposterous” kid’s book with absolutely no pictures, meant to be read aloud by unsuspecting (or just silly) adults. It begins:
You might think a book with no pictures seems boring and serious. Except . . . here’s how books work. Everything written on the page has to be said by the person reading it aloud. Even if the words say . . .
BLORK. Or BLUURF.
Before the reading began, Novak asked all the kids in the audience to join him on stage. Kids ranging from about two to thirteen proceeded quietly to the front of the auditorium, looking back warily toward their parents, who gave them reassuring nods. When the little tykes were all gathered in a small, quiet semi-circle around Novak on stage, he read the book’s warning:
And that set the tone for the reading: lots of adorable and hilarious audience participation by the kids, lots of laughter by the adults. Despite the fact that the book has only been around for a week, it was clear that these kids were intimately familiar with it:
When he was finished reading the book, Novak took questions from the audience. Standard practice, but, in a funny twist, he took kids’ questions first. That led to some gems like this one (I apologize for the shakiness and blurriness of the video; I was laughing):
An especially precocious three-year-old asked, “Why did you call it The Book with No Pictures instead of The Completely Ridiculous Book that Kids Make Grown-Ups Read?” Novak replied, “My original thought was to call it something exactly like that, but then I thought adults might not want to buy that book and might prefer a more elegant experience instead,” gesturing to the stark and plain black and white book cover. Parents guffawed.
After the kid questions, which included seven different children asking, “Why is there blueberry pizza in there? That’s not a thing!” and six other kids saying, “I like the robot monkey part,” he asked for adult questions. A sampling (Note: I tried to transcribe his answers verbatim, but I was typing furiously into my phone while he was talking and did not manage to get every single word. Rest assured, however, that I have captured the essence of his responses):
Question: What is your favorite word?
Novak: My absolute favorite word is pretty. It means so much and so little at the same time. It’s weightless and dismissive, and yet so many people would trade everything for that tiny word. If you put “pretty” in anything, even something like Pretty Little Liars—not that I watch that show, I really don’t—but if you put “pretty” in anything, it sounds good.
Question: What was the best thing about writing for The Office?
Novak: I got to be there to hear all of the ideas. There were so many funny things that didn’t make it into the show. Like, there was this one joke that I always really loved. Michael and Jim are at a Chinese restaurant, and Michael is staring down at his placemat. The waiter comes over to their table to take their order and Michael musters his courage and orders: “I’ll have the goat. And I’ll try some of the rat. And maybe some dragon.” Jim says, “Michael, that’s the Zodiac.” And Michael responds, “Oh, thank God.”
And that was that: a lovely evening with B.J. Novak . . . and a delightful break from the norm when it comes to author readings.
Next time I go to a reading, I’m going to take a cue from these kids and interject at random intervals with loud and exuberant opinions on particular parts of the book. I’m pretty sure that will go over swimmingly.