Last Sunday, about 150 men and women (almost exactly even) gathered at Odd Fellows Hall to watch five naked women read selections from their favorite science-fiction novels and short-story collections. Wearing boots or high heels and nothing else (except for Jesse Belle-Jones, who wore a pair of bouncing, glittery antennae and had her nipples painted a bright radioactive green), they sat on two red vinyl couches for well over two hours, reading for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. The event was the third in Seattle's arm of the Naked Girls Reading empire, a series founded in Chicago in 2009 that has already expanded to 10 cities, with nine more on the way. The evening's host, burlesque performer Indigo Blue—dressed as a librarian in a tight skirt—announced that Seattle's franchise was "already the largest and most successful Naked Girls Reading in the country."
Despite the beauty of the five naked women, the titillation part of the evening ended fairly quickly. There was no dancing, twirling, or bending over backward; legs remained primly crossed or tucked together. Unless you're a 13-year-old boy (with remarkable facial hair and a really good fake ID), you're not going to be aroused by the mere proximity of naked women sitting in front of a coffee table covered with Star Wars paraphernalia. Which means that the reading itself has to be good, or else you're going to get pretty fucking bored pretty fucking quickly.
Luckily, the reading was very good. The readers had clearly practiced the material extensively—something many veteran authors on book tours can't be counted on to do—and they lovingly selected the excerpts for maximum impact, introducing each piece with a brief bit about why they think it's important; Violet Tendencies began her selection from Tanglewreck by announcing that "if it weren't for the Atlantic, I would stalk" British author Jeanette Winterson. If booksellers had shown up with a few copies of the featured books, they probably would have sold several on the readers' unabashedly nerdy enthusiasm.
The selections weren't inherently sexy—Heidi Von Haught read the hilarious Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy passage that introduces the deadly dull terrors of Vogon poetry (it makes your esophagus crawl up and strangle your brain), and Belle-Jones read a disturbing Orson Scott Card story about a sociopath who finds a mutant infant shoved, half-drowned, into a toilet—but sometimes the context loaded the stories with additional meaning, as when Polly Wood read James Blish's pulpy Star Trek novelization, Spock Must Die!, bringing a whole new tension to the Kirk/Spock relationship as she crossed and uncrossed her legs. They went around the couches three times, reading from Philip K. Dick, Madeleine L'Engle, Jorge Luis Borges, China Miéville, and a selection from Dune (the audience spontaneously let loose with a lascivious "Ooooh!" when Indigo Blue announced that Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic was up next).
Bare breasts are a wonderful reading accessory—they serve as a thermometer of the reader's interest. When a woman is reading from a small paperback novel that she loves, she holds it in front of her, cradled in her palms and prized open with her thumbs, her breasts cozied up against each other, nipples pointing together as if cross-eyed from concentration. And you can tell if a woman is interested in a story because her breasts are pointed, rapt in attention, at the reader. If the story too thick with chewy adjectives (one of the Ray Bradbury stories read by Vienna La Rouge), the breasts fall backward, aiming in opposite directions.
It would be easy to point to Naked Girls Reading as a sign of some sort—an indication that "normal" readings are boring, for instance—but that, of course, is lazy bullshit. Just a few blocks away from Odd Fellows Hall, Pilot Books is hosting a monthlong festival of fully clothed small-press authors, with a reading every night in March. The bookstore has been packed with adoring attendees sitting cross-legged on the carpet, eager for brief readings from authors such as Joshua Beckman and Chelsea Martin (whose deadpan delivery of one-liners like "There should be a word for the kind of laugh you make when you're trying to make it seem like you're the type of person who laughs naturally" marked her as the result of a literary miscegenation between Dorothy Parker and Tao Lin).
If anything, the avid reception for Naked Girls Reading simply shows that there's still plenty of room in Seattle for readings of all kinds, from the prurient to the nerdy to the experimental—or all three put together. The fact that Naked Girls Reading is so uncontroversial is a refreshing reminder that the literary and the carnal can live in silly harmony. But there's always room for an eensy bit of controversy: At the end of last Sunday's reading, Blue announced that the next Naked Girls will be on Sunday, April 4—Easter Sunday—and that the reading would be religious themed. The audience giggled in anticipation.