Reading for a living

Over at the Boston Globe‘s Brainiac blog, Christopher Shea relays the news that NPR has a new slideshow up about jobs that no longer exist, including copy boy, bowling pin setter, and lector, a person paid to read aloud to people rolling cigars by hand.

I knew I’d heard about this job before, though it took me a minute to remember that it was in James Weldon Johnson’s lovely 1912 novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man:

After I had been in the factory a little over a year, I was repaid for all the effort I had put forth to learn Spanish by being selected as “reader.” The “reader” is quite an institution in all cigar factories which employ Spanish-speaking workmen. He sits in the center of the large room in which the cigar makers work and reads to them for a certain number of hours each day all the important news from the papers and whatever else he may consider would be interesting. He often selects an exciting novel, and reads it in daily installments. He must, of course, have a good voice, but he must also have a reputation among the men for intelligence, for being well posted and having in his head a stock of varied information. He is generally the final authority on all arguments which arise; and, in a cigar factory, these arguments are many and frequent, ranging from discussions on the respective and relative merits of rival baseball clubs to the duration of the sun’s light and energy—cigar making is a trade in which talk does not interfere with work. My position as “reader” not only released me from the rather monotonous work of rolling cigars, and gave me something more in accord with my tastes, but also added considerably to my income. I was now earning about twenty-five dollars a week . . .

The narrator is even able to afford to hire a piano.

Update (March 24): Jenny D. just relayed to me the news that on Thursday, March 25, at 7pm, here in New York, the Americas Society is hosting a reading by Araceli Tinajero from her new book El Lector: A History of the Cigar Factory Reader. (Alas, I won’t be able to make it, because I’m chained to my laptop impersonating El Escritor until further notice.)

Further update (later on March 24): The topic reminds my friend Gabe of Felipe Jesus Consalvos, a cigar roller in the early twentieth century who incorporated cigar boxes into his outsider-art collages.

And still more: Irin Carmon tells me via Twitter that there’s also a 2007 short documentary film about cigar lectors, With a Stroke of the Chaveta.