Sold! Gary Shteyngart Pitches the Role of Books

Gillian Reagan | March 10th, 2011
Gary Shteyngart read his novel at the 92nd St. Y in January.

Gary Shteyngart reading from his novel at the 92nd St. Y (Tribeca) in December.

“I feel like a salesman,” said novelist Gary Shteyngart on stage at the 92Y’s Kaufman Concert Hall Monday night. “Don’t stop reading!”

Shteyngart, dressed in a black suitjacket, light blue-button down shirt and fading back jeans, was pitching to an audience of bespectacled late-20 somethings and graying 92Y regulars, some of whom brought small notebooks to record his wisdoms on reading and writing, as well as those of another celebrated author Victor LaValle, who read from his 2009 novel Big Machine. As for Shteyngart, he had just read from his well-praised recent book Super Sad True Love Story, which takes place in dystopian future where reading books is nearly non-existent, save for in the hands of his protagonist, an aging schlub who is seen as a luddite by his peers. Today, in the real world, there have been hundreds of studies and over-wrought magazine articles about the “end of reading”– how young people are living like cyborg receivers picking up blips of data from Twitter and their iPhones and changing their brain hardwiring by abandoning books. Shteyngart and LaValle were asked by an audience member what young people are missing out on by not reading literature.

You’re giving up your personality for a little while — it goes away — and you begin to enter the consciousness of another human being… And perhaps, if it’s a writer with some skill, you can develop empathy for something you’d never thought you could develop empathy for.

“We live in a culture of endless self-expression,” Shteyngart said. “There’s more writers than readers. Because we all want to be the hero or the heroine of the video game screen, we all want to express ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

But reading offers a moment outside of those digitally traffic-jammed byways in our brains, according to Shteyngart. It’s a vacation — or, more accurately, an escape — from the static of the mind. “You’re giving up your personality for a little while — it goes away — and you begin to enter the consciousness of another human being. It’s a quiet time. Everything slows down around you, in a way it doesn’t when you’re looking at a screen. And you start to understand, and maybe you don’t like the person, whose mind you’re entering, but there you are. The gates are open. And you can live inside that mind for a while. And perhaps, if it’s a writer with some skill, you can develop empathy for something you’d never thought you could develop empathy for.”

“If that goes away and we’re reduced to little spurts of information popping up across a screen, sort of information that don’t tell us much about the mind of the person who created them, but that certainly compels us to do something or think in a certain way or be a certain kind of person, something that we’re not already, I think that’s a huge loss. And I begin to worry about that. And so I wrote a book about that.”

Shteyngart admitted that he is a pessimist, but after traveling across the country for book readings, which were attended by many “of whom are young, under 74 years old and still enjoy literature,” he said. “That has inspired me to keep writing.”

As for Mr. LaValle, dressed in another salesman’s outfit — a slightly more colorful one with a brown suit jacket over a blue and white pinstriped shirt and a graphic tie with tropic pinks, reds and blues brushed across it — he is more optimistic. “Sometimes change can seem like loss to those people who aren’t changing,” he said. “I just don’t know that the reports of the demise of everything are always [accurate]. I sort of imagine that even single cell animals wish for the days when things were simpler. There’s never a future in that.”