Like the borough that hosted it, this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival managed to unite seemingly disparate phenomena with a ragtag, homespun charm. Part reading series, part book fair, part publishing-industry confab, part literacy campaign, the second annual BBF had something for nearly everyone, and thus drew thousands to downtown Brooklyn. The literati may have looked askance at the radical pamphleteers; the publishers may have looked down on the self-published; the poets and the fiction writers may, for all I know, have faced off like Sharks and Jets behind the Starbucks… but on a mellow Sunday, under a crisp fall sky, no one came to blows.
This plurality of purposes and preferences is, in your correspondent’s opinion, the great strength of the BBF (and, if I haven’t made it clear, of Brooklyn itself). Events like this provide an important opportunity for readers to meet the producers of the books they read, and vice versa. Moreover, they encourage aesthetic cross-pollination and discovery. Whereas one walks away from BookExpo America wondering what the point of publishing all those books can possibly be, one strolls the crowded flagstones of Cadman Plaza surrounded by people who love to read. It’s refreshing to see kids outnumbering the adults at the Children’s Pavilion, to see bedraggled tourists lounging on the steps of Borough Hall to listen to poetry, and in particular to see presses that aim for an African-American audience treated as full members of the publishing community. (I’m no expert, as one reader of last year’s BBF dispatch pointed out, but at BEA, too many presses publishing primarily black authors were cast into the nether regions of the Javits Center.) As Jason Shure of Housing Works said, in his introduction of George Saunders, Lynne Tillman, and Joshua Ferris, the Brooklyn literary boom offers a local counterweight to the various macroeconomic trends that threaten the culture of the book.
Again notable at the BBF this year was the emphasis on independent businesses. Local stalwarts BookCourt and Housing Works Used Book Cafe sold books by featured readers, and presses like Akashic (whose own Johnny Temple helped organize the fiction readings), Soft Skull, Ugly Ducking, and Calamari showcased the breadth and depth of American independent publishing. The friendly folks from A Public Space, Tin House, and the wonderful Nextbook showcased the best of both print and web periodicals. Minneapolis made a strong showing, with Milkweed, Coffee House, and Graywolf all operating booths. Works from across the world were offered in translation from Archipelago Books, Europa Editions, and Host Publications, to name a few. And at least a couple of literary magazines, Five Points and The Chattahoochee Review, made the trek up from the South… which points to the BBF’s ambition to get on the national map.
Still, with its emphasis on the general reader, the BBF may not become a must-attend event for publishers. (Notable no-shows this year included NYRB and McSweeney’s, though Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng gave a talk related to What is the What.) There’s not much to do at the BBF besides buy or sell a few books, meet some cool people, and catch a reading or two in the too cozy confines of Borough Hall. None of which will make the morning papers. But there’s a dignity in that. I’m happy to take the Brooklyn Book Festival just as it is.