Five Years in a Row: Boston Book Festival 2013

In 2009, a cohort concerned that a city like Boston with its rich literary history and tradition no longer had a major book festival, got together and relaunched a major festival focused on the book, in Beantown. The Boston Book Festival became the city’s new, reconstituted festival celebrating books and the writers that write them. I’m glad they did.

Families develop and celebrate various traditions. Sports, art, railroading; for my son and I, attending Boston’s Book Fest in the fall is one of ours. 2013 was our fifth consecutive one, as we’ve been at every festival since the relaunch.

A plethora of writer/book panels to sample.

A plethora of writer/book panels to sample.

Here’s what I wrote for my blog at the time, five years ago, about that first one and the importance of Boston hosting a festival for books:

It is only fitting then, in that spirit, that Boston, a city with a long history of books and publishing, a place where America’s first newspaper was founded, as well as firsts for having a public library, and place of the first printing press, would host a major book festival. Boston was once the home of Longfellow, Emerson, and Thoreau. It is home to some of this country’s and even the world’s top institutions of higher learning. It is a place with a rich tradition related to the written word, and understands attention to words—an understanding that words matter.

Every year that Mark and I have attended, the festival has been well-run. The logistics inherent in holding it at Copley Square work. Getting from venue to venue is painless and involves a relatively short walk across the square.

I don’t know how they do it, but they always have an army of orange-shirted volunteers. At every session, there’s not one, or two volunteers, but a team, directing you, handing out information and programs, and making sure everyone knows where to go.

Achieving this level of precision has to take hours and hours of planning, and the Boston Book Festival team, under the leadership of Deborah Porter, pulls it off without a hiccup. Well, if there are glitches (and I’m sure there are), I’ve never seen them. Even better; each year seems to offer additional choices, a diverse mix of sessions, and has expanded beyond the major Saturday focus, to Thursday and Friday before. Amazing!

We attended three writer/author panels this year. In setting up our day, we were really focused on two of them; one being fiction, featuring Nicholson Baker (which was Mark’s choice) and one nonfiction, featuring Chuck Klosterman (which was a suggestion of mine). We managed to spontaneously scoot into a third one prior to our primes ones; “Writers Idol” turned out to be an unexpected treat.

Based loosely on American Idol, with the idea of being “chosen” by a group of judges, random submissions of 250 words were read by writer Steve Almond, and “judged” by a panel of three literary agents.

Steve Almond reading a submission at "Writers Idol."

Steve Almond reading a submission at “Writers Idol.”

There were some quality pieces read. Count me as a fan of Almond. I have heard him read before, at the Newburyport Book Festival (where I actually met him), and I enjoy him as a writer and someone with an opinion about the writing craft. He can also be a bit prickly, and this was on display in some of his “thoughts” and “corrections” he offered to the agent panelists a couple of times during this session. But it worked, in my opinion, and he was probably the best facilitator of the three panels we attended, as he enhanced, rather than subtracted from the discussion.

I really liked hearing the agents thoughts and ideas about what they didn’t like relative to a certain submission, and also mention what they liked. All three agents; Sorche Fairbank, Lauren MacLeod, and Mitchell Waters, represented years of experience deciding the fates of countless wannabe writers, which is a role that agents fulfill, especially in the traditional function of writers getting published.

Mark and I are fans of Chuck Klosterman. His books are different, which is a weak descriptor, I know. Sticking with with the weak by way of introduction, Klosterman can be described as an American author who writes books (mainly nonfiction), which focus on aspects of American popular culture. He currently writes the “Ethicist” column for the New York Times Magazine. He also writes for Grantland, the online magazine/website mining the intersection between sports and popular culture that’s affiliated with ESPN. He’s also funny and doesn’t take himself too serious.

Chuck Klosterman pulling off the argyle and Chuck Taylor look with aplomb.

Chuck Klosterman pulling off the argyle and Chuck Taylor look with aplomb.

As an aside, we were hungry and hit Boloco on Boylston for burritos. They were good, hit the hunger spot, and allowed us to spy on Klosterman eating and having a drink next door, at Globe Bar & Cafe. We could have been fanboys and gone over and I’m sure he would have been cool about it, but we decided not to. Hence, we don’t have a cool picture with Mark, me, and Chuck Klosterman.

“Hero and Antiheroes” was an odd melange of Klosterman, the pop culture guy, a Greek classicist, Gregory Nagy, who teaches at Harvard, and novelist, Claire Messud (who happens to be married to New Yorker book critic, James Woods). The panel worked. Nagy managed to frame the discussion in a very classical way without being overly academic and pedantic. The guy knows his Greek heroes/antiheroes and his students surely benefit from his vast knowledge in this area. Messud was ok, but Klosterman really made this work, from my perspective and Mark’s. He kept coming back to  Walter White of “Breaking Bad” notoriety to riff on his ideas about heroes and villains, the latter being the theme of his latest book, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined). In the hands of someone else, one more mention of Walter White would have had me cringing; Klosterman, however, had some fresh takes on the narrative structure and story conventions of television and how the stories of villains are almost forced on us by that structure. I thought this was an interesting perspective, and coming from a writer who writes as one immersed in the pop culture milieu came across as authentic, not forced.

It's not just about books; the lovely and talented Hadley Kennary entertaining festival-goers.

It’s not just about books; the lovely and talented Hadley Kennary entertaining festival-goers.

The panel that wrapped up BBF 2013 for us was “Dirty, Crazy, Endless Love,” and was fiction-themed. The three panelists were Nicholson Baker, Andre Dubus III, and Jamie Quatro, all of them with new books oriented around the theme of love. James Woods, New Yorker book critic, and the one and the same James Woods married to Claire Messud, moderated.

Of the three, this one was the oddest, yet might have had the most spirited discussion. By odd, what I mean is that the two elements connected to love that got bantered back and forth ended up being technology and sex, and how the former was impacting sex (and love) in a negative way, mainly due to technological devices. Well, this was really the frame of reference that Dubus brought to the discussion. If I had to characterize Dubus’ concern about technology, I’d say he was coming at it from a point of view of someone who merely tolerates it, and at times bordered on being a neo-Luddite and a technology crank (not that there’s anything wrong with that), although that latter characterization may be overly harsh. Admittedly, he doesn’t text (although he “Skypes with his son in Ohio,” so he freely admitted that it “makes me a hypocrite, I know”).

Copley Square has been a perfect home for all five BBF events.

Copley Square has been a perfect home for all five BBF events.

Baker didn’t see the dire consequences of “device sex,” and how civilization was coming to an end due to our smart phones in the same way that Dubus did. Quatro, offered a counterpoint to the discussion, as her book of short stories is oriented towards cybersex. Or perhaps, Woods set it up better, with his fairly lengthy (in my opinion) synopsis of her book of stories, I Want to Show You More, which according to Woods, imposes a rare (in these postmodern times) theological reference point to her stories about sex, family, and infidelity.

Afterwards, Mark and I walked to South Station. We talked about books, the panels, writing, and the upcoming Celtics’ season. He got on the commuter train back to Providence. I hopped on the Concord Coach bus back to Portland.

I hope we get to do it again in 2014.

A few BBF 2013 souvenirs.

A few BBF 2013 souvenirs.

3 thoughts on “Five Years in a Row: Boston Book Festival 2013

  1. That photo of Copley Square with that great Tower of Sauron on the right. What a perfect emblem of everything Kunstler (and others, of course) tried to teach about fitting architecture to people. Here is a lovely public square with most of its original buildings, but then someone wanted to build this monument to his ego (I am a brilliant architect, who are you peons to object?) and a thoroughly corrupt process of councils and boards approved it (He’s a brilliant architect, so if we don’t approve it we show ourselves to be unappreciative boobs, so we better sign off on it). They built it on the south side of the square, putting the anchor of Copley Square, Trinity Church, in shade almost all day long. The shadow from that building looms several blocks over, reaching Newbury Street and likely even Commonwealth Avenue in the winter when the sun’s angle is lower. Sauron couldn’t ask for better. Almost every building in the square is built in an Italianate style, to a height proportionate to the square (there are exceptions, but none as grotesque as Minas Morgul on the corner), and they all face the square, where this invader from Mordor looks as if it is forcing its way into a private party.

    Horrifying and grotesque. Thank you for the early morning photo, otherwise it’s impossible to find a contemporary photo of Trinity Church with light on it.

    • LP,

      Thanks for you comment about the John Hancock Tower, and its incongruous location across from Trinity Church, not to mention the many other historic buildings that it’s construction clashes with. I shot this picture from the steps of Boston Public Library to capture this, something I’ve noted every time I’ve been in this location.

      This link indicates that when the construction was in the planning stages prior to its being built in 1976, local outcry was considerable. The solution–to make sure that “the glass wall of the 60 story John Hancock Tower reflects its surroundings and does not interfere with it.” This is the “genius” of so-called great architects.

      Then there’s this claptrap.

      But since opening to the public 35 years ago on Sept. 29, 1976, the Hancock Tower has steadily won the hearts of residents, tourists and architectural critics alike. Earlier this year, Mr. Cobb’s bold geometric edifice received the prestigious 2011 American Institute of Architects’ Twenty-Five Year Award, which is bestowed on buildings that are 25 to 35 years old and embody architectural design of enduring significance.

      Today, the Hancock Tower is considered a modernist marvel, an architectural mood ring that changes color and shape depending on the sky, time of day and one’s vantage point. Deeply influenced by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s futurist glass skyscraper studies for Berlin in the 1920s, the building deliberately reflects H.H. Richardson’s Trinity Church (1877) below—ensuring that the older inhabitant of Copley Square remains its true superstar.

      Built in 1976; interesting. Just another indication that the unwinding/collapse is proceeding on schedule.

  2. Yes, I regret that the real discussion of your post was “overshadowed” by the Tower of Isengard, which does a fabulous job of mirroring nearby parking garages and rooftop air handling and elevator assemblies. Your source cites as another success the hated and despised glass monstrosity the same firm popped into the middle of the Louvre. Mr Cobb, the architect, remains a deluded Pygmalion still worshipping the creation of his ego.

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