EVER since full-service bookstores replaced diners as the most common gathering spot for java-jiving urbanites, New York's traditional literary types have been tormented by the agonising suspicion that all the wrong people are reading. And so, not long ago, over-educated New Yorkers set out to make the habit more exclusive. Recalling that Alexander the Great moved his lips when he read books, they decided that what was good enough for a former conqueror of the world was good enough for them. Thus was inaugurated the trend of reading aloud in public spaces, and it has now caught on to so great an extent that every magazine and paper in New York now lists reading under fancy rubrics as if they were circuses or Wagner cycles, young millionaires dream of opening a reading space rather than a film production company, and in the last week alone, scores of readings have been held, one of them so very desirable and highly evolved that the writers were not even asked to read; it was enough to hear their written words conveyed via audiotape as they relaxed amid worshippers and hors d'oeuvres.

If what Manhattan's bibliophiles were after was mere entertainment, they would go to the movies or to a Knicks game. But no one goes to a literary reading to be entertained, and certainly one does not go to be read to. One goes to be seen being read to. On the face of it, the attraction may seem dubious, but that is because few people understand that in the last few years, New York has acquired a Cult of the Intellectual - a social phenomenon that previously had thrived only in France. As any proper cult does, this one has necessitated the creation of a class of worshipful acolytes, who need a place to go to bear libations to their heroes. The Cult's apotheosis was signalled by two events: first, the arrival of the above-mentioned bookstores, and second, the emergence of the scrawny young philosopher in-need-of-a-shave as a Hollywood screen icon (Slacker, Reality Bites, Before Sunrise, Titanic). It was an icon that, factoring in some variation for age and sex, that an awful lot of New York writers closely resembled. The groupies went mad, writermania hit. Bookstores alone could not contain the throngs, and readings spread to downtown lust lounges, Tribeca coffeeshops, and East Village regression cafes.

Like any other activity that manages to drag on for more than a season in this culture-drunk but distractable town, readings have acquired sponsors. The most artful of these is the Macallan single-malt whiskey, that amber beacon to wordsmiths everywhere. Preying on the insecurities of people who don't always make it to the best readings, the Macallan blankets the letterboxes of the writerly demi-monde with opulent invitations to seances with literary legends, in a hotel or club of much higher pedigree than the guests. Upon arriving, eager invitees notice the trays of Scotch flanking every egress, and realise with sinking heart, that yet again, they have been duped. The Macallan unwittingly hosted a genuine literary moment last fall, when James Ellroy, the author of L.#A. Confidential came to Manhattan. Before reading an excerpt from his book about his mother's murder, he satisfied his obligations to his hosts by bellowing that he'd been "on the wagon" for decades, but that if he ever wanted to get back off and glide straight back to Hell, by God he'd do it on the Macallan. Mostly, though, sponsorships are more organic; a complicit understanding between writer, publisher, writer-wannabe, writer-dater-wannabe, and the invisible agents who sign the contracts, that in the end, there surely must be something in it for everyone, if you only read between the lines.

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