The weirdness of the virtual book tour

I'm in a box talking to invisible people

Of the many strange experiences I’ve had during the pandemic, perhaps the strangest was my socially distanced book tour in February. Four Lost Cities was one of many books that got delayed by the coronavirus -- it was supposed to come out in July 2020, at which point I would have been flying to a bunch of cities to give readings in bookstores and libraries. Instead, it came out in February 2021, and I stood in my study with a bright light suction-cupped to the back of my monitor while I talked to invisible people on streaming video.

And I mean it when I say “invisible.” Most book events on Zoom are done using a “webinar” format, which hides the audience from the presenter. The only people I could see were myself (distracting! Is my hair OK?), the person I was in conversation with, and friendly bookstore employees. It took me a couple of tries before I realized that I could see the number of people in the audience in a mouse-over menu at the bottom of the app. So I was talking to a number! How I yearned for those innocent, early days of pandemic events on Zoom, when you could scroll through little squares of people watching, cooking, lounging with their pets, crafting, working in another window, and sometimes picking their noses.

I thought it would be really relaxing to do a book tour from home because there would be none of that airport nonsense, nor lonely hotel rooms. But instead it was equally as exhausting, but for different reasons. It’s hard to maintain energy and enthusiasm during a book reading and discussion when you can’t hear or see your audience. I missed meeting new people and visiting new bookstores; I even missed the smell of permanent markers during the signings. 

Like many of us at this point in the stay-at-home grind, I’m starting to understand fully what it means to be part of a social species. There’s a feeling you get when you’re in a room full of people, all talking and thinking about the same thing together. It’s warm and prickly and sometimes awkward. It’s a rush. It’s silly and fun. There’s a fundamental sense of purpose that I never feel when I’m alone. I miss it. I miss you. I can’t wait until we’re all hanging out together again.

Things to watch and read

The good side-effect of virtual tours, however, is that nearly all the events I did were recorded and posted online -- and I’m including a small selection of them below.

The first week of my book tour, I did a series of events that focused on individual cities. Here they are:

Çatalhöyük with Charles C. Mann at Green Apple Books. If you are desperate for more Çatalhöyük content — and you should be — I also wrote about Çatalhöyük and the origins of home in Scientific American.

Pompeii with Brad DeLong at Watermark Books

Angkor with Arielle Duhaime-Ross at Politics & Prose

Cahokia with Rebecca Roanhorse at West Bank Books

All the cities with Amal El-Mohtar at New York Public Library

Then I was on Slate Money, talking about the economic issues brought up by urban abandonment. 

I was also on the brilliant podcast Science for the People!

And did I mention that Russell Shorto gave Four Lost Cities a glowing review in The New York Times? The Financial Times liked it too.

Upcoming events

I still have a few events coming up! This Wednesday I’ll be at Can*Con, where I’ll talk with Brandon Crilly about how archaeology helps us write better science fiction.

And on March 31, I’ll be in conversation with the amazing space archaeologist Sarah Parcak at the Boston Athenaeum. Get your tickets now!

My new book is Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. You can find information and ordering links for it and my other books on my website, helpfully organized into science fiction and journalism. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram — or listen to Our Opinions Are Correct, the fortnightly podcast I co-host with Charlie Jane Anders. If someone forwarded this email to you, you can subscribe to it here.