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America’s Great Book Festivals

Reading Groups.

Photo: Andy Friedman

“The id spews! That’s what it feels like when my brothers and sisters are all in one room! The id spews.” I find myself in an instant mind meld with a cheerful woman in a beige poplin raincoat in front of me at Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books. I’ve written a book about coming together with my older brother, Carl, a trial lawyer turned apple orchardist and, for many years, a mystery to me. By now I’m used to these conversations about siblings and their misconnections. I write her phrase: “The id spews.” “Is that good?” she asks. “Yes.” “My family was insane!” For one brief moment, we have had more than a tweet of conversation. Then she moves on, vanishing into the crowd. Her card drifts into my purse. What we are talking about here is not exactly connectedness, but wisps of conversation, strangers trying to reach across a divide.

On the first afternoon of a three-day weekend, a marathon of more than 200 authors and speakers and countless devoted readers unspools on the grounds of the Tennessee capital. It’s a supermarket of ideas: How to choose between Ron Rash and William Gay presented as “Masters of Southern Gothic” or a stirring panel of young novelists on “The Trouble with Secrets”? Those writers fight for audience with eight other presenters in just one time slot. Elizabeth Berg, Michael Lister, Roy Blount Jr., Rick Bragg, and Brad Gooch (on Flannery O’Connor) are all in Nashville speaking and signing books.

Clusters of book people gather, drink coffee, and schmooze. In spite of the persistent hand-wringing about the future of books and reading—the death of print!—the quaint folkways of the book festival are alive and thriving. Here in Nashville, and in cities all over, writers in their infinite varieties parade their new offerings to audiences of every size. We are atomized in modern life, divided by the buzz of BlackBerries, e-mail, virtual friendships, but at bookfairs the possibility of conversation still looms to tantalize. The festivals prove the paradox: For all our instant communication, the screens have somehow made us lonelier, making talk, real talk, a desperate luxury of another age. Here, however, is still the possibility of the unfiltered moment, author to reader, reader to reader.

Is there an author who will not cross the country, brave a tornado, wear a sandwich board, such is our gratitude that anyone out there is still actually buying books? This past year my wheelie bag and I have been to festivals in Austin, Miami, Detroit, San Francisco, and Jaipur, India. I have cards from book clubs, pamphleteers, authors who have changed their names to places in the Bible, even a plastic surgeon who studied with Brazilian master Ivo Pitanguy. These cards will float around in my purse, collecting lipstick and chocolate smears, and float up like totems in the weeks to come: Who was that again?

“I don’t want detachment from my characters,” Kathryn Stockett says at the Nashville literary breakfast. “When I wrote The Help, I wanted to really understand these women who had worked in the houses, taking care of the children. I wanted intimacy with my characters.” On the same panel, author and pediatrician Perri Klass announces: “My God, if someone analyzed the way I run my house, my children might have been taken off to foster care!” In that moment, the audience of 150 suddenly laughs with the shared jolt of identification. Klass beams. She has connected all of us.

Marie Brenner’s new book is Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found.

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