Report on the Brooklyn Book Festival 2009


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Maybe not every community should have a book festival, but Brooklyn, N.Y., showed how to throw an excellent one Sunday. With more than 150 booksellers, magazines and other bookish folks set up in tents on the plaza in front of Brooklyn Borough Hall, and dozens of free readings and panel discussions, the event was accessible (some people just stumbled on it) and festive (they stayed).

A must-attend panel, moderated by Touré, featured hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and poets Tracie Morris and Matthew Zapruder. Their discussion of where poetry, rock and hip-hop intersect focused on words. Fiasco -- who resisted fans’ efforts to get him to say when his album will be released -- explained that before he worked with music and beats, he filled notebooks with words. ‘I had a plethora of words,’ he said. ‘See how many pieces I could collect.’ Zapruder concurred, saying, ‘I find words that attract me ... and I set myself this task of making something out of them.’ But Moore saw words as a mutable part of rock and roll, ‘slurred language,’ which could be misheard and mis-sung, unintentionally making songs over.


Two separate panels wrangled with the question of the future of literature and publishing. In the first, author T Cooper lamented, ‘I can’t help but talk about the business, when I want to talk about the art’; Keith Gessen responded, ‘I like to talk about publishing. I live in New York, it’s fun to talk about publishing.’ But the business got less attention than the Internet, blogs in particular, which were seen as amateurish and inclined toward posting book reviews next to cat photos (guilty as charged). An audience member -- writer Emily Gould -- asked what the future of literary fiction might be ‘if there’s a consistent refusal to meet the audience where it lives,’ (i.e., online). Later, Gessen insisted that Gould had not been a plant.

‘I do think people read differently online,’ Granta’s editor John Freeman said in the second panel. ‘The trick now is to somehow make literature seem urgent.’ The worthwhile discussion was taped by C-Span for later broadcast; moderator Maud Newton suggested that literature had long been affected by evolving technologies -- and maybe our digital future isn’t so bad. Despite the many looming challenges, this panel seemed optimistic. ‘In 10 years we’ll look back on this conversation and laugh,’ said Dwight Garner from the New York Times. ‘Solutions that we cannot yet foresee will arise.’

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books had its own panel, featuring Angelenos who write about Los Angeles: L.A. Times books contributor Richard Rayner (‘A Bright and Guilty Place’), Nina Revoyr (‘The Age of Dreaming’) and Judith Freeman (‘The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved’), as well as David L. Ulin, L.A. Times books editor and editor of the Library of America anthology ‘Writing Los Angeles.’

But a great number of the more than 200 authors that appeared at the Brooklyn Book Festival have lived in Brooklyn, including Paul Auster, Edwidge Danticat, Jonathan Lethem, Francine Prose and Colson Whitehead. The last appeared in the impressive marble-and-wood Borough Hall Courtroom and took this photo before his presentation, showing what it’s like to be an author looking into the audience.

It’s both wonderful and disappointing that the Brooklyn Book Festival takes place in just one day. For those who organized it, it’s got to be a relief that it’s over; but if it had lasted longer, I might not have had to choose between Jonathan Lethem and Mary Gaitskill (the latter, apparently, sang a Pizza Hut advertising jingle) and Jonathan Ames and David Cross, whose shenanigans closed out the main stage with much laughter.

-- Carolyn Kellogg