Book Fairs!

When I was a kid, the words “book fair” meant only one thing: my parents would give me twenty dollars, and–during some prescribed hour of the day–our elementary school classroom would be walked (single-file, remember) to the media center, where we would find a fenced-in compound of for-sale kids’ books. They were colorful. They were lightweight. They were arranged by age, so that we (the third-graders) could sneer at the all-picture books of the kindergarteners, or marvel at the no-picture books of the 5th-graders.  I would come home with a stack of books, simultaneously excited at having scored so much loot, and terrified at now having to read it all.

The book fairs have changed now, of course, but the overall experience has not.

In the past few months, I’ve been to writing/ reading/ book conferences in several cities, from the Florida Writer’s Conference here in Orlando, to the Other Words Conference in St. Augustine, to the lit-nerd nightmare of the AWP Conference in Chicago. (There is a frightening stack of books on my coffee table right now that I might never be able to finish.)

And I actually had the chance to take my 3-month-old son to his first book fair, the UCF Book Festival, just a few weeks ago.

Yes, that’s Jackson up above, tugging on the Cat in the Hat’s bowtie.

His experience will someday mirror my own, I’m certain, and he’ll have stacks of Roald Dahl books, and maybe his own copy of The Curse of the Blue Figurine, and How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, and all that. But…well, his first book fair didn’t quite go the way I planned. The bright lights, the screaming children, the Dr. Seuss characters bopping around…yeah, Jackson was crying pretty hard by the time we got through the kid’s section, so we high-tailed it out of there.

And this past weekend, when visiting my parents for Easter Weekend, I got to walk through the Venice International Book Festival. Jackson came along, also, and the experience wasn’t quite so traumatic…this time, it was just a few older women running up to him (no crazy costumes) to tickle his chin.

The Venice Book Festival was by far the smallest of the book fairs (AWP had over 10,000 registrants, and thousands of journals and publishers, and the UCF Book Fest was held on the floor of the school’s arena and packed with children’s publishers), but there was something endearing about the way that I heard local residents talking about it. Venice is no stranger to art festivals or food & wine festivals, but this was the first time that anyone in the city had actually organized a festival dedicated entirely to books. I don’t want to go so far as to make any grand pronouncements about the future of print, or online publishing, or the Kindle, etc. Those sorts of pronouncements and arguments are best saved for the AWP Conference, where there are nearly 1,000 total panels dedicated to beating the subjects of writing/reading to death, then beating some more. No, the Venice festival has no relevance to those arguments. It was just…nice. It was nice to see a few tents gathered on one small road, and a couple readings and lectures delivered in the nearby Venice Theater building, and a community that–despite the hyperbolic name of “international book festival”–had no higher ambitions than to buy some books, sell some books, and read some books. There were no agendas, other than raising money for a local literacy group.

Interestingly, I also got to see my father on the news that afternoon (he’s the mayor of Venice), standing in the middle of the street and talking about how great it was to see the community celebrate reading and literacy, and add another fun festival to the town’s list of cultural events. To be absolutely frank, I don’t think I’ve ever really heard my father talk about books before; occasionally I buy him a book for Christmas, and I’ve come to recognize the titles on the spines on a hundred leather-bound books in his office, but I’ve never seen him out at the pool reading, or in the living room on a rocking chair with a book in his lap. Until he ran for mayor, he was always a numbers man, an investment banker who read business news and stock tickers, but (as far as I know) no fiction or poetry or even biography. And yet here he was, speaking genuinely about the community’s need for events such as this one, and expressing real joy at the town’s warm reception for the festival.

To be frank, my own books wouldn’t have sold at the Venice International Book Festival. Most of the booths were selling kids’ books, or WWII memoirs, the sort of stuff that goes over pretty well in a retirement community like Venice where grandmothers leave the festival with stacks of new books for their grandbabies (my mother came home with quite a few new books for grandbaby Jackson!), and there probably wasn’t a foul word in any of them. The Venetians would have read a single page of my stuff, and they would have tossed it aside. And at the time, walking through the festival, that was my first thought: I don’t belong here.

But that isn’t the point, and I feel just a bit ashamed for having that thought at the ready during my time in Venice. It wasn’t about me. It was about books. Books, books, books. And it was about them: everyone else. For everyone else at the Venice festival, it was about reliving that feeling that from third grade, twenty-dollar bill in hand, unleashed in the colorful playpen in the middle of the media center, the world around you opening brighter.

There’s nothing quite like that feeling. And though I’m now tougher to please with my own literary tastes (and I’ve got to go to gigantic airport hangars to have my fill of books), it was good to see the city of Venice get that feeling back.

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