Editor’s Notebook: Visiting a virtual party for book nerds

Seattle’s literary organizations are creating community for readers and writers amid coronavirus.

a person reading with computer

Crosscut arts & culture editor Brangien Davis with Silent Reading Party attendees on Zoom. (Daniel Spils)

If you’ve never been to a real-world Silent Reading Party, then the virtual version probably sounds even weirder.

Before coronavirus, the SRP was a free monthly event at the Hotel Sorrento, at which people really did just gather together to sit and read quietly for two hours. (Some attendees paired cocktail sipping with page turning.) It was packed! If you didn’t arrive early, it was hard to find a seat in the hotel’s cozy Fireside Room.

But since there’s no packing into cozy rooms anymore, SRP founder Christopher Frizzelle (of The Stranger) has moved the event online. Once again: it’s packed! But in cyberspace, everyone gets a seat. Having previously attended SRP in person, I tried the new Zoom version and discovered that it really does create the sort of community we’re all craving right about now.

“Walking in” to the SRP feels like going to a party where you’re not sure who will be there. I experienced an old familiar feeling of excitement mixed with nervousness. What if I don’t know anybody, what if I’m doing it wrong, what if I want to leave, what if it’s really fun? In the beginning moments, as the Brady Bunch screen multiplied to accommodate 128 people, it was clear that we all have those feelings — that’s what makes parties so terrifying and gratifying and human. There we were, peering out from our personal spaces like eels from a rocky reef, smiling shyly in search of quiet connection.

a portait of a woman on a balcony
A photo from Seattle photographer Steven Miller's series of friends at a distance. (Steven Miller)

We are social creatures. And here on day whatever of the stay-at-home order, I can personally attest that the urge for interaction with people we don’t live with is strong — whether sitting in a virtual room reading together or exchanging hellos with neighbors. This week on Crosscut, reporter Agueda Pacheco Flores wrote about how local motorcycle clubs are finding ways to do group rides at a social distance. And reporter Margo Vansynghel talked to the fine art photographers who are taking portraits of friends and strangers while staying 6 feet or more apart.

At the outset of our isolation, local artists were sharing their work online in a one-way fashion, via virtual studio visits, dance snippets and living room concerts. But now we’re seeing a slew of literary events that depend on interaction — and people are eager to participate.

Last week, in celebration of International Haiku Poetry Day, I instigated a call for pandemic haikus. Crosscut immediately received some 50 entries, from political to funny to devastating. A sampling:

Sometimes, when news breaks
A piece of me breaks off too
I need a long nap

(by reporter Dahlia Bazzaz)

Can salmon sneeze, mom?
Barrage of questions all day.
All day. Every day.

(by editor Becky Crook)

Holding your hand as
Your family FaceTimes you
To say their goodbyes.

(by nurse Andrea Gahl)

motorcyclists ride 6 feet apart
Seattle Moped Army riders stay at least 6 feet apart on group rides. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

The Seattle Review of Books has also issued a call for pandemic poetry — no syllable counting required — for weekly publication on its site. “We have received so many amazing responses,” SRB reports. “In them, so many moving stories, reflections and thoughts about our current weird, and somewhat unbelievable, world.”

Literary center Hugo House is pulling people out of existential drift and into the fold with events like the Solitude Social Club happy hour (this week with very funny Spokane-based novelist Jess Walters, April 24 at 5 p.m.), and the new Quarantine Write-In series with Rebecca Agiewich. These one-hour online sessions offer not just writing prompts, but dedicated time and (virtual) space to write with others in community (first session is April 23 at 5:30 p.m.).

And Seattle Arts and Lectures and the Seattle Public Library have teamed up to release their annual “summer book bingo” cards early this year, since (in good news) people are doing more reading than usual. (Bonus: The new cards were designed by Susanna Ryan, illustrator of the local Instagram sensation Seattle Walk Report.) Check the SAL blog for weekly sneak peeks of this year’s squares (first reveal: a book that’s “uplifting”), then order a title from an indie bookseller and get reading. Once you’ve filled in enough squares to hit bingo (or full blackout!), post a photo on social media tagged #BookBingoNW2020 to be entered in a drawing for a lovely literary prize.

Maybe you could accomplish some of that reading during the next Silent Reading Party. Because of the virtual version’s popularity (and bottomless “seating” capacity), the event now takes place every Wednesday evening (6-8 p.m.; $5-$20 donation goes toward keeping The Stranger afloat).

During last night’s installment, I was reading Subduction, the new novel by Seattle writer Kristen Millares Young, who was supposed to have her book launch at Hugo House this weekend, but alas. Young sets her story — featuring betrayal, murder, ancient legacies and steamy bad-idea sex — on the Makah Indian Reservation at Neah Bay, where a Latina anthropologist has fled her own culture to embed herself in another. Young’s poetic language evokes this damp Northwest place so vividly that moss seems to sprout from the pages.

My soundtrack was live music by SRP mainstay Paul Matthew Moore, the local composer who plays piano during the event, slipping seamlessly from Cole Porter to the Beatles to Radiohead. At chapter breaks, I’d glance up to check in on my fellow book nerds, who were reading while sipping a drink, rocking a baby or petting an insistent cat. It felt so nice to go to a party — even one that’s silent and virtual — where people allow a camera into their private rooms, just to read and be together.

For weekly updates from Brangien about the shifting landscape of local arts amid coronavirus, subscribe below.

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