I arrive at Books and Books in Coral Gables at about 8:05pm, Tuesday evening. The place is buzzing with energetic conversation and there is a small table with sandwiches and a half empty bottle of Quinta de Aveleda. I sit down and place my Moleskine on the chair beside me, surveying the room. Everyone is well-dressed and cordial. I see what looks like a group of college students, a man with a hair piece, a handful of literary types, two camera men. But no sign of the writer I came to hear. Soon I realize I’m in the wrong room and head toward the entrance where another reading has just begun.
There, a small group is assembled in a space west of The Cafe, listening. John Barth is reading from his essay The End? published in the Winter 2012 issue of Granta, entitled Exit Strategies. I take a seat and lend an ear. His reading is slow and deliberate, pausing every third or fourth sentence to insert a side comment or reveal a back story. The essay, at its core, is about not writing. It’s about a writer coming to terms with the possibility of no longer being able to produce fiction, yet not giving up entirely. He goes into detail about his writing process, the ritual he’s employed for the last several decades, since his first novel, The Floating Opera, was published in 1956. He details his struggle, as well as his hope.
“Please understand,” he says, looking at the audience. “I’m not closing the door. I’ve learned to be patient.”
He reads on and talks, almost romantically, about his love for the physical process of writing. “The flow of ink on paper,” he continues, “is something that I love. I love the business of starting a sentence.”
He’s practically singing now.
Truth be told, John Barth has made many sentences. Many great ones, in fact. Yet with nineteen books published to date, he speaks with a humility that is nothing short of inspiring.
“At 81, I can only hope there is still another book in me.” When asked how it felt to have at one point carried the torch of literature, he snickers and calls it a severe overstatement.
After he finishes the essay, writer and art critic Chauncey Mabe fields questions from the small audience, who seems eager to pick his brain. Barth cites Borges and Faulkner as two people that helped shape him as a writer and thinker. He talks about the good times he had with Raymond Carver and about his love for the game of tennis and about youthful ambition. He talks a great deal about ambition as a writer.
“The ambitions of people who feel they have a calling are limitless,” he says.
He talks about playing jazz in high school, about really wanting to make it in music as an arranger.
“After two weeks at Julliard, though, I knew I had to look for something else to do.”
It was then that he knew he wanted to become a serious writer. He talks about Sophocles and about Greek Tragedy and I ask him what he thinks about the future of reading. He pauses and looks directly at me.
“Look, reading will never die. People thought it would die when the television came along, but it didn’t. People will always want to immerse themselves in a good story. The medium always seems like it’s going to die but it just never does. It’s much too pleasant.”
Having outlived most of his contemporaries like William S. Burroughs, Donald Barthelm, and Kurt Vonnegut, Barth seems grateful just to be able to write, even if it’s only essays for now.
“Really, non-fiction is a welcome respite for me these days,” he says.
As long as people are reading, John Barth says he will continue to work. He doesn’t ask for much in return, either.
“I want at least for my books to be in print while I’m still here.”
Let it be said, even with all the accolades and experience and wisdom, John Barth is still just a man trying to find the words.