Joe Christiano has a thing for character. “I’ve always had these mad crushes on great character actors, and I’ve always been a huge fan of voice-driven fiction,” he said. So much so, in fact, that asking him about his all-time favorite fictional character prompts something of a miniature crisis. “Oh, there’s no way I could answer that,” he said. “There are just so many.” The final answer arrives by e-mail nearly 24 hours later: “After much agonizing, I decree that my favorite character is Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces.” You get the sense that Christiano has actually been thinking about it the whole time: He’s a bibliophile — and a cinemaphile, and an audiophile — in the purest sense, in love with the sheer visceral thrill of inhabiting someone else’s brain for even a few minutes.
That’s part of the reason he started working at Pegasus Books back in 1991. Yet over the course of two decades and thousands of author readings, he’s found the traditional live book event to be largely unsatisfying. “Honestly, I’ve heard my share of really dull readings,” he said. “Writers are great performers on the page, but they’re not necessarily the best interpreters of the work themselves.” It’s a classic problem with author events: Watching someone sit in a chair and read out loud is an inherently flat activity. The great irony of the live book reading is that it actually often feels less active and less interesting than reading itself. For someone who fell in love with books for their character-driven, sensory, smack-you-in-the-face immediacy, this was a problem waiting to be solved.
Christiano sought to shake up the standard literary event template, to “bring something to the bookstore that was as compelling and cathartic as a night in the club or a night at the theater,” he said. “I wanted to host literary events and not have the term feel like an oxymoron.”
He also hoped to breathe new life into books that don’t typically get the live-reading treatment. “There’s a ton of material on the shelves not getting talked about because we’re locked into this tradition of readings that are very author-driven, that are very commercial, that depend on a new book being released,” he said. But with so many professional and amateur actors struggling to find work, it made sense to use local talent to bring a whole range of stories to life.
Thus was born First Person Singular, a more-or-less monthly series of dramatic readings designed to highlight personal voice, broadly defined. Each First Person Singular event is one-of-a-kind, something between a spoken-word event, a play, and a book reading, all organized around a theme.
Like a true reader, Christiano manages to find the literary value in pretty much anything. In addition to more traditional material like monologues and short stories, Christiano has also themed events around Sixties girl-group songs and Warren Zevon records. On Wednesday, April 20, it’s “Two Men Down and No One On: Baseball Stories.” “For some reason I find baseball to be the most lyrical sport — the lore, the terminology, the role of the players,” he said. Berkeley writer Barry Gifford will deliver the metaphorical first pitch with a monologue, after which local actors Wayne Wong and Stanley Spenger will conduct dramatic readings of Jim Shepard’s “Batting Against Castro” and J.D. Salinger’s “The Laughing Man,” respectively. At Pegasus Books Solano (1855 Solano Ave., Berkeley); 7:30 p.m., free. 510-525-6888 or 1stPersonSingular.com