Why I Love Boston: The Literary Parade

Not long after I moved to Somerville, in the fall of 1997, I saw John Updike and Saul Bellow read nearby within the same week. I can’t begin to explain what this meant to me, a young, neurotic, desperate-not-to-suck writer. These were guys — demigods, really — I’d worshipped for years. The idea that I could take the T to some meeting hall and listen to them speak struck me as nothing short of miraculous.

For the first four years that I lived here, about all I did was go to readings. I saw Lorrie Moore and Julia Glass and Seamus Heaney and Junot Díaz and Sue Miller and Margot Livesey and Andre Dubus III and Tony Hoagland and Maxine Kumin and Thomas Lux and Tom Perrotta, who lives in Belmont. I sat in the back of the room, in a hot cloud of anxiety, scratching down notes that I would examine an hour later in the solitude of my apartment. I was borrowing bits of other writers’ genius and hoping to knit them into my own efforts.

But the big-ticket readings were only part of a pattern. I went to any literary gathering that would have me: raucous poetry slams, ex-hippies swapping stories, coffee-house open mikes. This was my social life, if you don’t count dismal blind dates. I can see now that this was a vital part of my literary apprenticeship; it wasn’t that I learned to write by going to see my betters, but rather that they served as powerful reminders of who I wanted to be someday, exemplars of an eloquence and courage I didn’t yet possess. I remember watching the poet Frank Bidart read at the Blacksmith House in Harvard Square, and nearly weeping at the intensity of grief his lines conveyed. And I remember listening to the fearless fiction writer Alicia Erian read a story so brutally honest I more or less forgot to breathe. I’ve got a thousand memories like that.

I’m married now, with two little kids and debts no honest man can pay. I don’t get out to readings as much as I’d like. But there are hundreds of young writers out there in the city, doing just what I did a decade ago, showing up night after night to worship in our cathedrals of language.

It’s so easy to take for granted the gifts that Boston offers us. But I came here from Greensboro, North Carolina, and had spent the previous eight years in Miami Beach and El Paso, Texas. In those cities, I’d felt — to one degree or another – like a freak. People there did not celebrate reading and writing. In fact, there’s no city in this country, and perhaps on this planet, that honors literary art as purely as Boston.

New York has scads of fabulous writers and reading series. But it’s a city dominated by the amphetamine rhythms of the media, the grandiosity of theater, and the gossipy avatars of the publishing industry. In Boston, literature isn’t an industry. It’s a way of life.

Steve Almond is the author of six books, most recently Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.