A Cold Reading of a Hot Book

When I accepted a freelance assignment to be a “cold reader” for a debut novel coming out from Penguin Press, I couldn’t believe my good fortune because it meant I would get paid to 1) read and 2) point out someone else’s mistakes – two things I very much enjoy.

My task was to catch as many typos as possible and question anything that seemed off factually, but the manuscript for “A Working Theory of Love” already had been proofread and copyedited by others so I also knew the project wasn’t going to be overly difficult.

The assignment looked even better.

The 336-page document arrived on a Thursday in May and I announced that no one better try to interrupt my reading or take the red correction pen from my hands. I curled up on the couch for a weekend of reading. Tough job, but someone had to do it.

Although I discovered a few problems, I mostly found myself thoroughly engrossed in the tale of an emotionally adrift divorced man whose day job involves trying to teach a computer to talk by using his dead father’s journals.

There were sections where I laughed out loud, where I was surprised and where I felt great empathy for the main character – all the while enjoying San Francisco through his eyes. I was sorry when the story ended, but packed up the pages and returned them to the publisher. Once my check arrived, I forgot about the book and moved on to other writing projects.

Then a few weeks ago, I came across the listing of events for an independent bookstore in Brookline, Mass., and saw that Stanford University writing teacher Scott Hutchins would be traveling to the East Coast to promote “A Working Theory of Love” just two weeks after publication.

I searched the Internet for reviews and learned the novel was being heaped with such praise as “a terrific debut” with “an intriguing, original take on family and friendship, lust and longing, grief and forgiveness" and described as “inventive, intelligent and sometimes hilarious.”

The book was hot -- and I’d been an infinitesimal and anonymous part of it.

I emailed the author to congratulate him, identifying myself as “one of your cold readers,” and said I hoped to attend his reading. He responded by thanking me for finding the mistakes, and said he looked forward to meeting me.

I made the 1 hour, 15-minute trip south but didn’t get an opportunity to introduce myself before he began reading from his book. It was a much different to experience it in his voice and without a correction pen in hand. I laughed in new places and finally understood the placement of a scene that initially perplexed me.

Afterward, we took a photo together and Scott inscribed a copy of his book with thanks for my “precise eye.” I think that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about my tendency to point out the errors of others, by the way.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to revisiting “A Working Theory of Love” for pure enjoyment. I’m also thankful for the opportunity to be even the tiniest part of this fascinating book and to be able to say to its author: “Enjoy the ride – you deserve it.”


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