by Morgan on February 22, 2011
People often ask me if I like Michael Silverblatt. I used to respond, “I hate him.” Everyone who knows me will understand this response, will not assume that it means I’ve met Michael Silverblatt, or had any personal interaction with him whatsoever. I’m just dramatic.
But I really didn’t like him. Listening to Bookworm was painful. I didn’t like the way I thought I could hear him projecting onto the interviewee, nor the ludicrously long time it can take him to get a question out. Ditto his voice, cadence, monopolizing of the conversation, and just about everything about him. I think I tweeted, sometime last year, “Shut the fuck up and let someone else talk, Silverblatt.” (That’s not to say I wasn’t infatuated with him and obsessed with listening to every episode, anyway.)
And then I saw him in person. I went to the LA Public Library’s ALOUD reading series to see Nicole Krauss in conversation with him. And it was literally hypnotizing. He was hypnotizing. I don’t think I looked at Nicole Krauss once (and she’s super hot and stylish).
First of all, when he reads, he holds the book three inches from his face. I like that. Eyesight notwithstanding, I like that when he’s reading, it’s physically impossible for him to take in any other visual stimuli. Then, the way he sits: forward and open. He approaches the interviewee like he approaches the book: by pulling it physically close to his person. I understand that the first law of Good Interviewing 101 is to maintain eye contact and open, engaging body language with your subject, but Silverblatt employs this notion in a way that’s deeper and more holistic. He breathes the person in, psychically absorbs them. He uses every faculty he has to comprehend and consider them.
And there’s the gestures. When you’re listening to Bookworm, you don’t get to see why it takes him so long to get his thoughts out. Here’s why: he’s SMILING. Smiling! He’ll be mid-question, mid-reflection, and he’ll stop talking, and just… smile. His face will crack open and radiate utter relish in what he’s doing.
You see that he’s incredibly active in those moments of silence. His hand goes into the air, making little curlicues, his chin points upward, he moves closer to the edge of his chair and then back, he closes his eyes, and he smiles. When Nicole spoke, he closed his eyes and listened to her, sometimes with a hand extended and held static in the air, as if tuning her voice so that it’s reception in his body would be perfect. Reception is great word, actually. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone receive another person so wholly.
So there, I realized that I’d had him all wrong. I’d accused him of projecting, when really he’s a vigorous receiver. I’d considered him smug, and in reality he is a tableau of humility.
At the end of the reading, he gave an impassioned plea for audience members to support their public library. He struggled to maintain composure while he told of his father taking him to the library as a child, the hours he spent among the stacks in total adolescent rapture, and his fear that the future hims will be denied this experience. But it wasn’t trite, as so many of these diatribes can be. It was immensely personal and honest; those hours spent in the library as a child formed his person, and he wanted us to know that.
Then I got home and googled him, and found this interview, and was sold. Now, when I listen to Bookworm, I imagine him teetering on his chair, absorbing his guest, gesticulating, and smiling his enormous smile, one that I’m willing to bet is reserved for discussions about books he loves.
And guess what: if you turn up the volume, you can actually hear him smiling. You can hear that it becomes subtly more difficult for him to form words through that smile , and you can hear the other person smiling in response.
Heart you, Silverblatt.