Charles Dickens was many things: great writer, canny businessman, philandering husband.
But he was also one other thing: magnificent performer. After a preshow meal of a dozen oysters and ample Champagne, Dickens loved to read his works before vast audiences, playing all the characters himself. He loved to provoke his fans to fear and joy and pity. He reveled in melodrama. He loved hearing the sharp intake of breath that signals dread and panic. Applause was his favorite music.
As we learn from the many great Dickens biographies — for me, the best is still "Dickens" (1990), by Peter Ackroyd, a brilliant hodgepodge of a life story, brimming with quirky narrative riches — the author of such classics as "A Christmas Carol" (1843) and "Great Expectations" (1861) was an unrepentant ham.
I was thinking about Dickens as I contemplated the 2011 Printers Row Lit Fest, June 4-5, sponsored by the Tribune.
The great man won't be in attendance, due to the slight inconvenience of his having been dead for 141 years. However, his spirit — the spirit of an author delighted to meet readers, of a storyteller who doesn't really care if his venue is page or stage, as long as he can unleash a great rollicking tale — will be everywhere next weekend.
I love Lit Fest. I love it not only because I am fortunate enough to be able to participate in it, but also because I enjoy savoring the exquisite paradox it represents.
As E.L. Doctorow once pointed out, books are written in solitude. And they are read in solitude. But in between, there must be noise, and lots of it. There must be bass drums and trumpets and slide trombones. Balloons and confetti. Fireworks and floats. Marching bands and dancing bears.
Because if authors want their books to be read, the release of those books into the world must be public events. Ideally, a book launch ought to be like Cleopatra on her barge: majestic, incredible, eye-catching. And sexy, too.
Thus authors must be performers as well as writers. Like Dickens, they must be witty and interesting. They must wield a microphone as well as they do a laptop. They must master the Q-and-A as well as the a-e-i-o-u.
Some authors are better at this than others, of course. Neil Gaiman, past winner of the Tribune's Young Adult Book Prize, is a prince of the podium. He gave an address at the 2009 Lit Fest that was better than any monologue you'll ever hear from Dave, Jay, Conan or Craig. His speech, like his writing, was pure magic.
Authors generally are identified with lonely garrets, with solitary scribbling by the light of a guttering candle. At Lit Fest, the writers come down from the rafters and join the world, ready to share what they've created.
We can't absolutely guarantee the presence of magic — nor would we bet against it, either. And so as you scoot through the multitudes in the South Loop next weekend, don't be startled if you happen to spot an older gentleman with a scraggly goatee in a long, dark cloak, murmuring that he's late for his reading of "David Copperfield." Ask no questions. Just follow him. Grab a seat in the front row. And enjoy.