Charles Dickens was the pop star of the mid 1800’s. Much like the Beatles a century or so later, he attracted large crowds of screaming fans, waiting to hear him. No, he didn’t bob his head and dish out soulful lyrics like members of, debatably, the first ever boy band. Women swooned and crowds chanted as an animated Dickens read word after word of prose from his novels, the most popular being ‘A Christmas Carol’.
Book readings weren’t unheard of, but Dickens was a performer. He employed all techniques that public speakers and theatre artists use to keep crowds interested. His “prompt copy”, carefully created with his own cuts and transitions, is preserved at the New York Public Library. The dog-eared book had notes next to the paragraphs: tones were described as ‘Surprise’, ‘Weird’, ‘Anger’ and more. Dickens was a diligent worker, practicing his performances so thoroughly that he often could recite page after page without reading from the prompter. After two hundred practice readings, he knew most of his work by heart, though he would sometimes slip up and have to quickly search for where he’d left off.
Book readings have since become a regular occurrence, but none has reached the superstar status that Dickens managed. There are no crowds thronging for a space to sit or even stand in the aisles when a contemporary author reads out, the occasional Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac notwithstanding. Today, like book-signings, it’s more of a marketing ploy. Not many authors enjoy reading out their prose, and as Sean Connery claimed in ‘Finding Forrester’, some do it just to get laid.
Another question comes begging: should prose be read out? Poetry, we know, is a medium of expression created for recitation. But what of prose? Does it have the same impact, or does it bore the audience because of the sheer length and distributed impact of the expression? The impact of the prose is best felt in reading, when the reader is involved in the process of delivery, turning page after page, moving from word to word. Passive listening hardly provides such pain or pleasure. Dickens’ way, however, was one theatrical in nature – animate word after word, change the tone to retain interest and enthral the audience. Each reading of the same novel had a different set of cuts being performed. That he did roughly 470 readings is in itself a proof of his popularity.
An Indian author, Amit Chaudhury, will soon be walking the path that Dickens treads so successfully. Only, he’s jazzing things up: readings of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize winners poetry and prose will be accompanied by jazz, blues and Hindustani Classical music. The author of A Strange and Sublime Address, Freedom Song and Afternoon Raag, Chaudhury is a classical singer himself. He says and I quote: “As the years go by, more of the performer in me is coming to the forefront”; after all, there’s no business like show business.