Boston Book Festival 2012

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Hurricane Sandy, the “Frankenstorm,” is upon us. Fortunately, the Boston Book Festival had a sunny fall day for their event yesterday. I had hoped to attend for the past couple of years, and was thrilled to finally be able to go. This hub of literary activity has been taking place since 2009, and they have a substantial archive of recordings from their events from previous years available on their website.

There is an amazing array of exhibitors’ tents to peruse while deciding on which sessions to attend. Big publishers such as Houghton Mifflin, academic and independent presses, literary magazines, and organizations such as Boston’s literary gem, Grub Street, surrounded Copley Square between the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church.

The first session I attended was The Hobbit: There and Back Again, at the Boston Common Hotel. When moderator Ethan Gilsdorf emerged from behind the panelists’ table wearing a toy sword, he told the crowd, “If it glows blue, you know what to do.” Author Corey Olsen, known as the Tolkien Professor and president of the Mythgard Institute, gave an interesting presentation about Bilbo’s character development in The Hobbit, which proved to be much more complex than most people probably give it credit for. The artwork Tolkien created was also featured, and the importance of his often-overlooked masterpiece, The Simarillion, was underscored repeatedly. After The Hobbit went into a second printed a month after its release in 1937, the publisher wanted a sequel. Tolkien hoped to publish the source of his mythology for Middle Earth, but it was too serious for their tastes, and thus came Lord of the Rings, to continue the story of the beloved hobbits. I left the session in search of the Gandalf for President button, a throwback to the burgeoning popularity of the series forty years ago.

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The next session I chose was A Conversation about The Iliad, where author Madeline Miller talked about how she developed her novel, Song of Achilles, using Homer’s epic as inspiration. As someone who writes historical fiction, I found this session especially inspiring. Miller articulated the challenges of incorporating an ancient text into a modern novel very well, and the description of her creative process helped me figure out some challenges of my own that I face as I work on stories inspired by ancient Mesopotamia.

At Graphic Novels: Drawing the Story, Chris Ware’s presentation was amazing. His new work, Building Stories, is told without a beginning, middle, or end. The reader is invited to read separate pieces of the work in any order. This innovative concept demonstrated that print still has a place in the world of reading, as an art form in and of itself. Chris Ware’s work was a highlight of the event, and I loved hearing how he developed his stories.

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The session I had been looking forward to since I first saw the schedule posted online a few weeks ago did not disappoint. The Future of Reading gathered the luminaries of the field for a discussion I could have taken pages and pages of notes from. Nicholas Negroponte, chairman emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab, Tufts University professor and neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, Robert Darnton, director of Harvard Library and proponent of the Digital Public Library of America, Houghton Mifflin executive Cheryl Cramer, and bestselling author Barutunde Thurston engaged in a lively conversation about the evolution of reading. As in many other sessions, the concern was voiced that close reading is fading, and that with superficial reading, the ability to go deep and connect with a text through inference and interpretation is being diminished. There was also concern for multitasking while reading, and checking social media and playing games on a tablet now compete for dedication to reading—“attention is the new currency,” stated Thurston, and it definitely rings true. However, the positive side of the discussion was nicely summed up by Cheryl Cramer, who stated that in today’s digital era, reading is boundless, borderless, personal, and social. The global reach of texts though digitalization and self-publishing will have a great impact on literacy and the ability to broaden the market to all literary tastes. There is no way to do this session justice in a brief blog post. It was being recorded, however, and as soon as that session is available online, I will definitely post links to it.

It was a great day. When filling out the survey, I felt one item was particularly worthy of sharing on Twitter. When asked what could be improved, I let my inner sci-fi nerd loose and tweeted that a TARDIS would be useful, so we could travel through time and attend *all* of the sessions hosted. The Boston Book Festival is a great lead-in to National Novel Writing Month. I can’t wait to see what they do for their fifth anniversary next year.

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(Originally published October 2012) 

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