Monday, August 16, 2010

Word nerds

For the past three years, August has meant the Edinburgh Book Festival; I even planned our honeymoon last year around certain events. I'm that much of a book geek.

Book festivals are marvelous, and Scotland is lucky to have dozens to visit each year. And Edinburgh is Mecca. The place is bustling from 10am until the wee hours. Staff are friendly. Visitors are chatting, smiling, queuing. And authors are approachable.

The magic lies in this: accessibility. Actors are on a stage or a screen; rarely do they muddle with fans. Artists aren't often present at galleries or museums. Authors, however - they're active. They take our questions and answer them, looking into our eyes. They are vulnerable, behind a microphone with only a moderator between them and an audience. It can't be comfortable.

I saw Christos Tsiolkas on Saturday (author of The Slap). He was brilliant: compelling, controversial, frank. Even a bit nervous. He had a lot to say that caused a bit of furor in the broadsheets by claiming that recent European fiction was 'dry and academic, and not in the best way, but in a cheap, shitey way'. Didn't go over too well with this crowd, but I can see where he's coming from. Fiction should challenge us, should force us into the uncomfortable and the awkward and make us sit up and listen to our prejudices, our ideas of justice, our assumptions. His book was the first in a long time that I've recommended to every reader who can handle it. It's a tough book; it's not pretty, it's not filled with beautiful prose or lilting description or Hollywood endings. But it's real, aggressive, fiction. Tsiolkas did not disappoint, either.

Book festivals have the readers devouring books, discussions that continue long after the author has finished, advice that is golden. But book festivals also challenge us. They allow us to be intellectuals without seeming pretentious. They allow authors to put themselves among the reading public as ideas simmer and dive and soar. They give us proof that in a world of reality TV and video games, reading is still alive.

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