A Blog of Seattle Arts & Lectures

“An Ode to Books and Those Who Create Them” by Jennifer Duval

Simply put, SAL would be lost without our volunteers. Their generosity and kindness, know-how and long memories keep our events running smoothly. Enjoy these reflections on volunteering with SAL from one of our longtime volunteers, Jennifer Duval!


Joy Harjo will be my sixtieth. If I did my math correctly and was able to recall (with the help of SAL’s brilliant website archive) all of the authors I’ve seen through Seattle Arts and Lectures, then this award-winning poet will be the sixtieth author event that I’ve attended. There are likely some others that I’ve forgotten, but it’s been amazing to go through the list and track all that I’ve seen.

The first event that I recall was the evening with Cheryl Strayed at Benaroya Hall in March of 2015. The year before that I had read Wild, like so many other middle-aged Pacific Northwest women and felt a kindred pull to this bad-ass who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail while facing her demons and coming to grips with the loss of her mother. It was a powerful memoir, which was later made into a film, and I felt honored to be in a room with her, learning about her experience of writing that book. The atmosphere was electrifying, and I was hooked.

Later that year I saw Elizabeth Gilbert expound on the magic of creativity, then heard Ta-Nehisi Coates discuss our country’s troubled history, which he wrote about so eloquently in his incredible book, Between the World and Me. A month later I enjoyed a lively interview with Anthony Doerr, who had won the Pulitzer Prize for his acclaimed novel, All the Light We Cannot See. It was after one of these last events that I ran into my old neighbors, Richard and Sally, who had started volunteering as ushers with SAL. We chatted about what fun it was to experience these events, and I lamented that the cost kept me from going to more. They encouraged me to sign up to volunteer, and I contacted the sal offices the very next day. That was the start of my extensive career as a volunteer usher with Seattle Arts and Lectures.

Those first events were nearly nine years ago now, and I’ve had many other impactful experiences since; from the chance to see one of my all-time favorite novelists, Ann Patchett discuss the book that she said was her most autobiographical, to hearing one of my all-time favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye recite her powerful words. I sat near the front of the house as Bryan Stevenson explained the importance of proximity if we truly want to create social impact, and then thought about that daily as I walked up Jackson Street to my job at a local non-profit. I got to rub shoulders with Helen MacDonald, whose book, “H is for Hawk” I had just finished reading. Jesmyn Ward’s stories of such profound suffering brought tears to my eyes, and the chance to see Alice Walker was a dream come true. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to hear Madeleine Albright before she passed away, and I’ll listen to Barbara Kingsolver talk about books any chance I get.

A highlight will always be the Patti Smith event at Town Hall, where we sang along to her iconic “Because the Night” song, swaying in unison and belting out the chorus that we all knew by heart. I will never forget that night. And writing heroes Tara Westover and Isabel Wilkerson gave me much to ponder, their wise words echoing in my head for weeks after their events. To have heard the sound checks of literary luminaries such as Pico Iyer, Maggie O’Farrell, and Zadie Smith feels like a gift.

Of course, there were evenings when it was pouring rain, and traffic was bad; I’d be rushing downtown from work, tired and hungry, and getting to the event two hours early felt like a chore that made me question why I do this. But when the lights dim and the speaker of the night starts talking about books and writing, about what makes them tick and where their ideas come from, about how they first started writing and why they continue to do it- I am all in. The energy in that room full of readers is palpable, and I am grateful to be a part of it. The very idea that a young poet, like Kate Baer, could sell out an event and have folks clamoring to get in, dressed in t-shirts with her poetry lines emblazoned upon them is just amazing. I’m so glad to be a part of these incredible literary events and the audiences who flock to them. I want to be connected to others who love to read and to write, and to talk about reading and writing, and who compare book suggestions and author readings. These readers and writers are my people- thank you, sal for bringing us together.

Posted in SAL Volunteers2023/24 Season