Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Harrisburg Book Festival - A Recap

October 12-15 was the 5th annual Harrisburg Book Festival.  After having to travel to Philly or DC for bookish events, it was exciting to have such a grand bookish celebration right in my proverbial backyard.  Midtown Scholar Bookstore organized and played host to the entire Festival, which was no small undertaking.  A few months in advance, they started releasing social media teasers of what events to look forward to, and it was all very exciting - some nationally-recognized and award-winning authors as well as local literary denizens.  When the full schedule was released, it was very exciting - a weekend full of presentations, conversations, and interactive events.  I marked my calendar, and took part in as much of the festival as I could.

Opening Night

The opening night of the Festival was devoted to music and poetry.  Local musician Shawan Rice played a set, and her soulful, bluesy voice truly set the tone for the rest of the evening.  There were three poets in attendance this evening, and all three read extensively from their published collections.

The first reader was Shara McCallum, Penn State professor of English and Liberal Arts, who shared poems from her collection Madwoman.  Her homeland of Jamaica and her coming-of-age in the US feature heavily in the poems, as do her experiences as a light-skinned black woman in the Western world.  Joshua Bennett was next, and he read poems from The Sobbing School.  The recent Princeton University PhD graduate and postdoctoral fellow at MIT had by far the most engaging and enthusiastic style of reading.  His words flowed deftly from humor to anger and sadness, and took the audience along with him.  More than just myself got a little emotional from time to time during his reading.  The final poet was Safiya Sinclair, whose collection Cannibal has won numerous awards.  She also drew upon her Jamaican upbringing and experiences in the US for her poetry.  Especially exciting were some not-yet-published poems that she chose to read at the end of the evening - one of which was written as a palindrome.  Shawan Rice returned to the stage to wrap up the evening, and the poets signed copies of their books.  It was an inspirational, emotional, and wonderful beginning to the weekend.


In one of the most exciting turns of the entire Festival, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was revealed to be the keynote speaker.  An exten and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, both at American University, Dr. Kendi is the author of the groundbreaking 2016 National Book Award winning nonfiction book Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.  I absolutely loved the book, and you can check out some of my feelings here.  Takeaways - Read. This. Book. Now.

After a warm introduction by Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, Dr. Kendi gave a powerful and inspirational presentation.  He talked about how he came to write his book, the importance of this kind of work in our modern era, and read a bit from Stamped from the Beginning.  Afterward, the floor was opened to the audience for a Q&A session, followed by a signing.  It was really thrilling to spend the evening with an author and academic of his brilliance, and to hear about his work directly from himself.  It truly was an honor.


In the morning on Saturday was a block of programming geared exclusively toward younger readers.  A local theater troop was putting on a special performance of Aesop's Fables, children's book authors were having storytime and signing books, there were arts and crafts activities for older kids, and - most exciting of all - there was a large selection of free, brand new books that children could take home with them to read.  As I don't have any little ones in my life (and I like to sleep in on the weekends whenever possible) I didn't partake of any of the KidsFest, but it sounded like a lot of fun!

Book Critics Roundtable

The only event I was able to attend on Saturday was a roundtable discussion between four renowned book critics - Bethanne Patrick, Susan Coll, Marion Winik, and moderated by Harvey Freedenberg.  They have been published in digital and print publications including Kirkus Review, Lit Hub, NY Times Review of Books, and many more.  Some of the panelists have been (or are currently) NPR and local radio contributors.  They have all been in the book industry for a long time, and had interesting perspectives on the art, science, and business of reviewing books.  

This panel was, unfortunately, the only one I could attend on Saturday, but I was really glad that I could be there.  As someone who is a casual book reviewer, it was fascinating to hear the contributors talk about what life is like as a professional reviewer of books.  For example, a book review doesn't pay that much (maybe $200), so if you're considering becoming a professional reviewer, be aware that you probably will need a day job or some other source of income. 

They began the discussion by talking about the purpose of book reviews, and what they should accomplish.  The purpose is twofold: 1. Interest general readers in a book/influence sales, and 2. Become part of the larger cultural conversation in which the author and the book function.  They all agreed that, when being critical of a book, it's important to meet the book on its own terms, rather than what the reviewer wanted the book to be.  In other words, don't blame the author for not achieving what she/he did not set out to do.  They also discussed the role of negative criticism and how they handle giving a book a poor review.  Some of the panelists had published books, so they could talk about reviewing from the perspective of the one doing the reviewing, and the one who wrote the work that is being reviewed. 

At the end of the discussion, each of the panelists listed two books that they were really excited about in 2017.  Harvey Freedenberg recommended Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, and The Mountain by Paul Yoon.  Susan Coll recommended Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives and The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis.  Bethanne Patrick recommended Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie, and Based On a True Story by Delphine de Vigan.  Finally, Marion Winik recommended Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin and Theft By Finding by David Sedaris.  Some of these I have read, some are on my shelves, and some I had never heard of, so I'd consider it an interesting mix.  The discussion on book reviewing was generally thoughtful and insightful, but it is worth noting that all of the panelists were white.  As they were talking, I wondered what the discussion would and could have been like had there been more diversity on the panel.

Creativity, Inspiration, and Novels

Bethanne Patrick stuck around for the next panel, talking about the roles of creativity and inspiration in the writing process with The Atlantic's Joe Fassler.  After that, authors Jennifer Haigh and Liz Moore took to stage to discuss their novels, Heat & Light and The Unseen World.  I was sad to be unable to attend either of these events, because they sounded like they would be engaging and thought-provoking discussions.

The Finale

Sunday, the last day of the Harrisburg Book Festival, featured three presentations about three really interesting books.  Elizabeth Wein was a Harrisburg native who moved to Scotland, and wrote her historical novel The Pearl Thief which features a Scottish influence.  Damion Searls explored the world of Rorschach inkblot tests in his nonfiction tome The Power of Seeing: Rorschach, the Inkblots, and the Enduring Relevance of the Iconic Test.  Finally, to close out the weekend, Ruth Franklin discussed her biography of the novelist Shirley Jackson, diving into aspects of her life not commonly known, called Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.  Sadly, I was unable to attend any of Sunday's events; I was really unhappy to have missed Ruth Franklin's presentation, because of my deep love of Shirley Jackson.  I intend to check out her book very soon.


Although I wasn't able to go to every single event, I had a wonderful time partaking in the Harrisburg Book Festival.  The variety of activities, panels, and presentations was thoughtful and inclusive.  A night completely devoted to poetry was refreshing, and the selection of poets was stellar.  The keynote was absolutely relevant, not only to the local community but to society at large.  I'd say that the 2017 Harrisburg Book Festival was a huge success.  I'm already looking forward to 2018!

Librorum annis,