Born in 1976 out of a desire to nudge writers and readers from their cocoons of isolation, the Queens College evening reading series has become a major literary feat that draws hundreds of people to see authors who make anyone remotely fond of the written word salivate —this year alone there was Margaret Atwood, Ha Jin and Nicole Krauss, among others.
Everyone from Beat poets —Allen Ginsberg, for example — to political activists and writers, such as South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer, and heroes of the short story, including Jhumpa Lahiri and Jamaica Kincaid, have graced the Flushing college’s stage in a series beloved by students and longtime neighborhood residents alike. After a successful year, which included a crowd of more than 500 people who packed in to see lyricist Stephen Sondheim be interviewed by The New York Times’ Frank Rich, the series will wrap up —until the next school year, that is —with novelist E.L. Doctorow on April 24 at 7 p.m. in Queens College’s music building.
“E.L. Doctorow may have read here more than any other writer,” said Joseph Cuomo, the founding director of the evening reading series. “He first read here in 1977 with John Cheever. He often reads work that hasn’t been previously published.”
Doctorow, who will be interviewed by WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate, is a Bronx-born writer whose canon includes “Billy Bathgate,” about a poor boy growing up in the Bronx who becomes the surrogate son of Dutch Schultz, a mobster, and “The March,” which tells the story of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous march of about 60,000 Union soldiers through Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864 and 1865. Both books, the first published in 1989 and the latter in 2005, were Pulitzer Prize finalists and landed Doctorow the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award.
Doctorow’s “Ragtime” has been named one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library editorial board, and the 81-year-old literary icon has worked with such other greats as Ayn Rand and Ian Fleming, when he was an editor at the New American Library.
As with almost all the writers in the series these days, Doctorow will undoubtedly draw hundreds of people to the college —a far cry from the more intimate affairs the readings were when Cuomo began them in the 1970s.
The first reading featured Marie Ponsot, a poet from Jamaica, Queens who was such an admired professor at Queens College that she would have “students come sit in her office just to be in her presence,” Cuomo said.
“I wanted us to be able to meet with writers on a regular basis,” Cuomo said of the series’ origins. “Reading and writing are solitary occupations, and this was a way to make us social.”
In the beginning, about 80 to 100 people would come for the readings — many of whom would then return to Cuomo’s Bayside apartment, or Ponsot’s home in Jamaica, to discuss literature far into the night.
“But then one day, we had Allen Ginsberg come, and 500 people showed up,” Cuomo said. “I couldn’t have them all come back to my apartment, and I realized the series had changed.”
While it has grown, Cuomo — who still resides in Bayside — said the mission of the readings has stayed the same.
“Students have come up to me and said meeting or seeing an author has changed their life,” Cuomo said.
“For the Queens writing community, this is the fuel for us to go back to our own work,” he continued. “We get to talk to writers we admire, and that’s always a terrific thing for all of us.”
For more information about the event, visit qcreadings.org.
‘Evening reading series’
When: Tuesday, April 24, 7 p.m.
Where: Queens College Music Bldg., 65-30 Kissena Blvd., Flushing