Guest Post: A Librarian's Brooklyn Book Festival Takeaways

Maybe you’re sick of hearing about Brooklyn, NY, often (rightly) accused of being the geographic center of Too Cool for Itself. If you have an investment in books, print or otherwise, however, it’s a region worth watching. In the last five years, excellent independent bookstores like Word and Greenlight have taken root in their communities . And, of course, the Brooklyn Book Festival is still going strong. LJ reviewer Lauren Gilbert, head of community services at the Sachem Public Library on Long Island, attended and in this guest post offers her frank takes on some select programming. For more opinions on the festival, search under the hash tag #bkbf on Twitter.‚ Heather McCormack

On Sunday, September 18, I attended the sixth-annual Brooklyn Book Festival, described by the organizers as one of the nation’s top free literary events. Over 260 writers participated in panels held throughout the day in venues around downtown Brooklyn, and literary vendors filled Borough Hall plaza.

Attendees on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall

Unlike last year’s cold and rain, it was a lovely fall day in Brooklyn, and the festival was packed with bibliophiles. The vendors‚ bookstores, publishers, cultural organizations, and literary magazines‚ all seemed to be doing brisk business. It was a pleasure to see so many people of all ages coming together around a shared interest in books.

The author line-up was top-notch, but I walked out of a few panels disappointed. Too often they fell back on lengthy readings, which left no time for interaction among the panelists. Note to festival organizers and moderators: We can read on our own. Allow us the benefit of having great writers together on one stage, and engage them in conversation. And keep the readings to five minutes or under.

The moderator of a panel called At the End of the Story openly admitted at the outset that he didn’t pick the topic, and that neither he nor the panelists (A.M. Homes, Nicole Krauss, and Randall Robinson) knew what it meant. They then proceeded to largely ignore it, and what followed was a series of interminable readings followed by a short audience Q&A. An afternoon panel with Jonathan Safran Foer, Joyce Carol Oates, and Nina Revoyr likewise consisted of a series of long, unrelated readings and felt like another squandered opportunity to bring together in conversation a standing-room-only crowd with book-world superstars.

In contrast, Unreliable Subjects was a panel that addressed its putative topic and engaged in genuine dialogue. Nonfiction authors Carmela Ciaru, Jonathan Weiner, and Amitava Kumar, expertly guided by moderator Robert Boynton, discussed how to write nonfiction about people of questionable authority. There was a slightly heated discussion about whether a nonfiction writer should worry about hurting a subject’s feelings or only be concerned with the truth. (Carmela Ciaru, author of Nom de Plume, a book about literary pseudonyms, quipped, That’s why I like to write about dead people.)

The Bartleby-inspired bag from Melville House

When genuine interactions occurred, the result was often electrifying. Poet/memoirist Mary Karr’s far-ranging conversation with music writer and novelist Nelson George about the intersection of music and literature was thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining. (Mary Karr, who claims that music is what she has always aspired to in her writing, has just completed an album with singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell.) It certainly helped that the two authors are close friends and needed little guidance from moderator Tim McLoughlin.

Cavernous St. Anne’s Church was packed for a panel called Defining the Moment: USA 2011: Where Are We? with Fran Leibowitz, Wallace Shawn, and Deborah Eisenberg, moderated by Harold Augenbraum of the National Book Foundation. The overflow crowd sat on the floors of the aisles and spilled out into the street. This was an entirely political discussion, with little mention of books or writing. The four self-professed liberals were largely in agreement about the state of the country, and almost literally preaching to the choir in St. Anne’s Church (the largely liberal, bookish Brooklyn crowd). It all felt a little self-congratulatory after a while, and this liberal actually started wishing for a dissenting voice.

With so many concurrent panels happening all day in multiple locations, I could only attend a small sampling of the festival offerings. All in all, it was an enjoyable, literary day in downtown Brooklyn. I’ve attended four of the first six Brooklyn Book Festivals, and I’m sure I’ll be back next year.‚ Lauren Gilbert

Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack (, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) is Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.