What do slam poetry, Scandinavian crime fiction and NaNoWriMo bumper stickers have in common?
All made an appearance last weekend in Berkeley, where the inaugural Bay Area Book Festival transformed 10 blocks Downtown into a multimedia explosion of bookish debris. The festival, different from other literary festival in the area — such as Litquake or the Oakland Book Festival — boasted an entirely free and walkable selection of panels, author signings and vendors that attendees from all walks of life could enjoy.
“I really like the fact that this festival creates an opportunity for people to just get together and read,” said attendee Aman Desai in an interview with The Daily Californian. “Other events, I think, are more focused on literary culture. This is really democratic and relaxed.”
Between the microphones set up in front of the post office and the experimental literary magazine booths lining the streets, the celebration was hard to miss. A main draw for all ages was the central art installation, “Lacuna,” a labyrinthine structure entirely filled with books that gradually became a skeleton as people made selections from the shelves. While many of the books were dog-eared library discards, few visitors left empty handed. Young visitors also enjoyed children’s activities and story time on the lawn, and the well-stocked food stands on either side of the park — including the Ecological Center’s Farmer’s Market — saw their share of diverse foot traffic.
More than 100 indoor panels and talks, many of which were held in the David Brower Center or other nearby venues, gave some structure to the event. While the panel attendance tended decidedly more toward the salt-and-pepper crowd, there was no shortage of heated discussion, especially surrounding contentious issues.
One of the first events of the morning was a panel called “Roots of Violence,” where authors Asne Seierstad, Lars Fredrik Svensen and Mac McClelland shed new light on current events, such as the motivations of ISIS and violence against women.
McClelland is a human-rights journalist who has more than once become an Internet sensation for her candid writing on her personal experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her book, “Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story,” was published in February.
“PTSD, in a way, is such a covered topic because we hear a lot about soldiers — but in another way, it’s an uncovered topic because we don’t talk about civilians with PTSD,” said McClelland in an interview with the Daily Cal. “We leave a lot of stuff out.”
Listeners also flocked to the event “Race, Class, Movements, Justice 1960s to Now,” a discussion of the continued relevance of the Civil Rights Movement. One of the panelists was Scott Saul, a UC Berkeley associate professor of English whose biography, “Becoming Richard Pryor,” was published in 2014. Pryor’s 1970s comedy sketches about police brutality went viral this year after Eric Garner’s death. For Saul, this affirmed that the issues he discussed remain relevant today.
“Richard Pryor spoke for a certain segment of the black community — black, working class and living in the pincers of the law,” said Saul in an interview with the Daily Cal. “So sadly, the lives of the people born in working-class black communities hasn’t changed all that much when it comes to the relationship between black communities and the police.”
So what’s the role of literature in a world like this? More than a few bookworms have expressed fear that in the digital age, books will cease to occupy their role in a society where a new generation of screen tappers and skimmers reigns supreme. Often, it seems like the only reassurance that these literature lovers receive is the guarantee that they’ll command a niche market — a market overrun by specialty bookstores and expensive literary magazine subscriptions.
Saul, however, remains optimistic. “The Bay Area has to be one of the most literary communities in America, if not the world,” he remarked. “It’s a place that’s alive with the ideas that are converged through intense engagement with books.”
Engagement, indeed: At the Bay Area Book Festival, bookworms from all walks of life gathered together to celebrate their love of the printed word and to affirm the fact that books belong to more than an exclusive niche.
Books are not yet dead. In fact, they’re very much alive.