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How To Speak With Strangers

John Hodgman and the Little Gray Book Lectures

On the first Wednesday of the month if you venture to the Galapagos Art Space you may be greeted by a man in a seagull outfit or witness bizarre contests of esoteric skill. More than likely you will see both. For one night a month Galapagos is inhabited by the "Little Gray Book Lectures," hosted by John Hodgman. The former literary agent and current food and wine columnist for Men’s Journal has created and developed an innovative multimedia series, which in John’s words "capture things onstage which cannot be held on the page."

"Little Gray Book Lecture #14" is titled "How to Speak With Strangers." On the day of the show I met John at his Manhattan Valley home, the neighborhood between the Upper West Side and Harlem. He informed me that the first lecture of the evening will be about how to break the ice. Is it coincidence or irony that I happen to be interviewing John for the first time on this night? It makes me wonder if he had not planned this all along.

John Hodgman spent 1994 to 2000 as a literary agent for the likes of novelist Darin Strauss, B-movie actor turned author Bruce Campbell, and writer Neal Pollack. He also pursued work as a freelance writer, initially penning free video game reviews for Time Out. In 1998 John began a correspondence with author Dave Eggers, who was then starting the experimental literary journal McSweeney’s. John became a contributor to McSweeney’s #1 and soon began writing a column for about the merits and demerits of a literary career with his cousin Josh—who does not exist.

In 1999 a reading in support of McSweeney’s #2 took place at Jing Fong in Chinatown. As planned, the writers performed a somewhat non-traditional reading that recreated the journal live onstage. It was a huge success, or as John puts it, "a spectacular event." It laid the groundwork for new directions that could be explored within the medium. For the McSweeney’s #3 reading, John assumed the role of emcee. Author Arthur Bradford augmented his reading with a guitar accompaniment, and he subsequently smashed it for the first time onstage. John witnessed Bradford do this again at a reading for the Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. It inspired him to organize a reading at Galapagos for Bradford in support of the short story collection Dogwalker. Bradford had to cancel, but John kept the show date and organized "Little Gray Book Lecture #1." Nonetheless, it would be doing Hodgman and the series a disservice to present it only as an organic outgrowth of the McSweeney’s readings.

Years ago Hodgman’s mother gave him a small blue pamphlet titled "How to Prepare Manuscripts." He soon discovered this was part of an extensive series called "Little Blue Book," published by E. Haldeman-Julius, prominent journalist, socialist, and owner of the infamous socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason. "Little Blue Books" were published for the better part of the 20th century, encompassing anything from reprints of Shakespearean tragedies to pamphlets like "Prostitution in the Modern World" and "How to Tie All Kinds of Knots." Each was numbered and authored by an increasingly diverse group of writers. "Little Blue Book" planted the seed for the "Little Gray Book Lectures" and is the product of Hodgman’s experience with the McSweeney’s readings, as well as his contacts in the literary world.

Like the "Little Blue Book" instructional pamphlets that inspired them, the Lectures are theme-specific, brief, and accessible. They have included sing-a-longs, spelling bees, and auctions. Themes range from "How to Throw a Curve Ball" to "Mystery Cults in America" to "Secrets of Self-Improvement." They are presented in a variety of media and presentation formats using overhead projectors, Powerpoint slide shows, videos, cartoons, illustrations, charts, laser pointers, costumes, and music. As John says, "I think it would be accurate to say that from the beginning we wanted to feature writers and creators in all media. Though at the beginning I was simply asking the most brilliant people I know to take advantage of the space and audience and theme in whatever way made best sense. And that is really what I am still doing and I am still endlessly grateful."

"Little Gray Book Lectures" feature a variety of talent drawn from Hodgman’s extensive network of established and emerging writers and artists, many of whom are John’s colleagues and friends. John is part of a community who thrive off of each other’s ideas and passions. This community is reminiscent of the socialist, communal spirit of the publication that inspired the series. He exploits this well in the lectures, fueled by the same desire he had as a literary agent—to help writers find a voice. Past lecturers have included novelists Elizabeth Gilbert and Darin Strauss, tiki-collecting memoirist Amy Fusselman, poet Deborah Digges, unscripted storyteller Mike Daisey, nighttime comedy writer Allison Silverman, essayist Chuck Klosterman, and cartoonists Dorothy Gambrell and David Rees. Although some of the contributors have been featured more than once, the mainstay, besides John, is guitarist Jonathan Coulton. Coulton writes an original song for nearly every Lecture. The loyal audience, which Hodgman has built, anticipates the closure Coulton’s songs often bring. They have the uncanny effect of wrapping-up and summarizing the night’s theme in well-crafted song. Hodgman believes "it is unconscionable that no one has found a way to make one million dollars off his talents yet." It should also be noted that Lecture #13, "How to Seek Your Fortune," explored million dollar ideas.

On the night of "Little Gray Book Lecture #14", "How to Speak With Strangers," John calmly instructs techs, runs through lectures with the night’s contributors, sets-up chairs, and squeezes in a few pieces of sushi. I asked him if he had any superstitions. He replied by saying that I should not utter a traditional phrase of stage encouragement of which the second letter of the first word is "f" and the second letter of the second word is "k" or it would throw off the whole show.

Originally I intended to recreate the night’s proceedings for this article. I soon realized, however, that I could not possibly recreate something in print that is specifically designed to lift text off the page and explore eclectic forums and media. I can tell you in John’s words that Lecture #14 included, "lectures on chance encounters, unexpected meetings, and the art of breaking the ice."

Joe Hagan of the New York Observer began by demonstrating (with the help of audience participation) antique party games collected by Clement Wood, early 20th century writer/contributor to the "Little Blue Book" series. It seems Wood was a swinger and one of his "ice-breakers" was a thinly veiled, 1920s version of a key party. Alexandra Ringe followed with a humorous story about unrequited convenience store love. New Yorker columnist and author Lawrence Weschler took the audience down a more serious, but serendipitous route in discussing the Serbian translation of his book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. Hannah Tinti, editor of One Story, shared from a novel-in-progress concerning a child and a seemingly resurrected man. Finally, past contributor Adam Mazmanian, formerly of the Washington Post, read hilarious and extremely intimate responses from those he spammed on behalf of a dot com. The name of the particular company he could not disclose. Coulton serenaded the audience with two songs, one of which was a duet cover of Rick Springfield’s "Don’t Talk to Strangers." Though meant to be funny, it was alarmingly melodic and well-done.

The show as usual filled the back room of Galapagos, drawing well over 100 people. The success of the Lectures has forced John to place his advice column, "Ask a Former Literary Agent," on hiatus. Reading the column sheds some light on Hodgman’s career path and growing discomfort with some aspects of the publishing world. This is due, at least in part, to the mainstream industry’s failure to embrace new information technology, and this is something the Lectures genuinely explore. Each Lecture is taped. There is always the possibility that they will be published in one form or another in the future. John was vague about how and when this might be done. He vacillated, alternatively blaming his hectic schedule and laziness. As his many pursuits and new fatherhood attest, the latter is most likely not the case. I believe he is formulating the best possible way to capture what happens onstage in an accessible and distributable medium.

Ultimately "Little Gray Book Lectures" have a loyal following that admire the creation of something tight and well constructed. Hodgman co-opts some ideas, combines them with his own, and channels them into something truly innovative. The Lectures are at times funny, at times touching, and much of the time esoteric and strange. They can leave the most intelligent wondering if they were just fucked with for a couple of hours. Like visual artists who explore multimedia, John Hodgman has created a living installation that is built and torn down, only to be rebuilt and torn down again a month later. The genius of the Lectures is that the audience leaves with a smirk—they have just been entertained, but also challenged to think. They are never quite sure if they have learned something useful or completely useless or perhaps they have just been made to think they have learned something at all. In the end I felt the same way upon the conclusion of this interview with John Hodgman. Coincidence? I think not.


Vincent Falivene


The Brooklyn Rail


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