What the Brooklyn Book Festival Taught Me

By Kieran Dahl October 6th, 2014

I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival to buy books, as one does. I didn’t buy any books. But I did discover publications to add to my List of Things I Must Read When I’m Done Reading Everything My Other List of Must-Read, which was my secondary goal. By day’s end, I had a lengthy iPhone note with the names of writers, magazines, journals, and books.

I also learned the following:

1. Cheesy posters of ’90s and ’00s celebrities reading books are much cooler now than in middle school.

In middle school, I despised these posters, taped on every white-painted brick wall in every mediocre middle school ever, because I believed the celebrities reading (or, at least, photographed “reading”) would never so much as use a book as a coaster. Does Grant Hill even like Lance Armstrong? Isn’t Queen Latifah wasting time reading the Ice Age book when she could just watch the movie? Why is Jeff Gordon sitting on the floor of his NASCAR garage reading a scuba-diving guide?

But these are quality posters, I now saw at the BBF. I took home two of each. Nostalgia breeds action.

2. You aren’t literary unless you carry a tote bag.

Ideally, your tote bag is off-white, ragged on the bottom, and emblazoned with the logo of a small publisher that strictly hand-prints on a letterpress, except when its volunteer numbers overflow, in which case it reluctantly uses commercial printing. Better yet, your tote bag features the small sans-serif logo of an obscure literary magazine whose print circulation rivals the population of a forgotten Western hamlet.

I overheard a waifish redheaded girl ask a complete stranger, “What’s that on your bag?” I glanced past her outstretched finger to see… Amazon’s logo. Amazon, embroiled in a war with Hachette that could rewrite the very industry giving the BBF its purpose. Amazon, which had no presence at the BBF, surely because the book world hates it.

I think she was joking. But I can’t be sure.

3. Everyone will try to find the stand for The New Yorker.

Actually, it goes goes like this: Get your hands on a festival map, notice The New Yorker isn’t in attendance, feel irked, run–walk to the Paris Review stand, see it’s woefully crowded, feel hangry, get a $3 water and three enchiladas at $4 apiece, lament your purchase, and walk–huff to BOMB, Granta, McSweeney’s, n+1Ploughshares, or Tin House, because these are the next-best publications in the minds of tote-carrying festivalgoers.

A thousand bookish New Yorkers know there’s only one New Yorker.

4. Author X never looks the way you imagined based on the style and content of his or her writing.

Given Paul Auster’s abstract, existential-crisis-pondering novels, I thought he’d look like a philosophy professor—frail, pale, balding. He’s actually tan, with a full head of wavy silver hair.

I thought Jonathan Lethem would look like the archetypal Williamsburg hipster, all grunge and angst, given his recent work’s focus on New York City. But he wore a tweed coat, olive green pants, and brown shoes.

That said, Joyce Carol Oates looks exactly the way Joyce Carol Oates should look.

5. At literary festivals, “free” actually means “free.”

To my knowledge, there wasn’t free food or free bestselling books at the BBF, but there were free stickers. Free posters. A free issue of Poets & Writers. Free advice for writers, in the form of a stand covered in dozens of sticky notes of pithy writing lessons, one of which was “Write drunk, edit never,” an intentional butchering of Hemingway’s famous advice. Also, free wisdom via osmosis.

6. Bloggers-turned-authors are met with an odd mix of reverence and distaste.

I assume that’s because they’ve achieved the dream: Turn a personal collection of rants, screeds, unpolished witticisms, and drunken musings into a lucrative book deal.

Case in point: Emily Gould. Editor at Gawker, recipient of an on-air verbal lashing from Jimmy Kimmel, subject of two New York Times profiles (in 2008 and 2014) and a blogger’s subsequent 11,000-word invective against her and other women writers. Now, she’s an author and the owner of a feminist e-book club.

To recap, she was was a blogger, became famous, became even more famous for being a blogger who had become famous, and is now just, well, famous—a relative superstar among literary-minded millennials. That is a good career arc for someone whose career is words. But is all publicity good publicity?

At the BBF, Gould spoke on a panel called “Trust Me, Really.” Festival literature described her as a “modern thirtysomething at a crossroads,” but among the audience at her talk, I overheard a mix of unprintable epithets about her personality and denigrations of her perceived “oversharing” of the minutiae of her life. There were also, however, glowing reviews of her most recent book and a reference to her as an impressively literary Lena Dunham. I assume that’s a good thing, given Dunham’s success with Girls and a sold-out 12-city book tour.

7. Hearing a book read aloud by its author is not enjoyable—even less so when you’ve read the book already.

Reading a book is an exercise in solitude. There are no police sirens and barking dogs to obscure an author’s words, no “um”s and “ah”s and awkward pauses, no people mocking the author’s accent and cadence, no people snickering at the aforementioned people. These are all things that happen when hearing a book read aloud, especially at a well-attended literary festival in an urban environment, and they all taint the experience.

8. Bob Saget is very tall.

Six-foot-four, to be exact.

Image by Kathryn Kirk
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