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.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.