Picture a four-year-old girl holding her mother’s hand, and in the other hand clutching a brightly colored book half as large as she is. Or picture a man with a gray goatee, wearing a fedora hat with a brim one inch wide, closing his eyes in pleasure listening to a poem. Imagine children with popsicles to ward off heat and to assuage the primal longing for sugar.
Summer is the time for festivals, to get out in the streets, drink some beer, paint your face, and … look at books? As we say here in Georgia—hell yes, let’s read! This weekend in Decatur, a town that abuts Atlanta like a tugboat up against an ocean liner, the Decatur Book Festival is going on. According to their website, it is the fifth largest book festival in the country.
I went down this afternoon, where I found the festival centered on the lawn in front of the old Decatur courthouse, in the middle of town. Surrounding the lawn there are now quite a few nice restaurants (one of which, the Iberian Pig, my daughter did the interior design for). Underneath the lawn is a train station, for the metro train to Atlanta.
The air of the book festival was that of a typical street fair, with a beaucoup crowd having fun, booths in white tents running down several streets, a string of food booths with the requisite Polish sausages and funnel cakes, layered in powdered sugar, and children playing with foam blocks made to look like concrete. Actually, that part was new to me. In addition to the exhibits in the tents (some book related: publishers, an agent, book sellers), some sort of bookish if you stretch it (universities and colleges), and some huh? (someone selling windows for houses—I guess writers need windows to stare out of while thinking).
There were also many booths of cultural organizations: dance troups (gloATL), theater companies (Synchronicity), the Atlanta Opera, writers organizations (Georgia Writers Association, Atlanta Writers Club), and museums of several sorts (Atlanta High Museum, the Georgia Museum). I also learned that the National Museum of Decorative Painting is in Atlanta. My list here is only for the few that I picked up materials from, or that I made note of.
In addition to booths, there were various “stages”, all of which were packed with spectators. When I first arrived I passed the teen stage, and a small crowd was gathering in the folding chairs to hear the presentation. In the central gazebo on the square, in front of the old courthouse, was the children’s stage, where a very enthusiastic young man was telling a story to at least 20 children, some sitting and watching and some standing with him to help act things out. The story teller used many broad gestures with the children imitating him.
I also went to two other stages for adults. In the new courthouse, a photographer was talking about photos as he showed them on a screen, taken while traveling around photographing old southern churches. In addition, he had found a strange cult compound in north Georgia (since closed down and the leader in prison), and in this compound everything had been built to imitate ancient Egypt. When one photo came on the screen, the photographer said that the people who lived there had “mobile homes that they accessorized to look like ancient Egypt”.
Another stage was in the beautiful old courthouse, upstairs in an elegant room with marble decoration on one end, where I joined a rather large group to hear two poets read: Maurice Manning and Adrian Matejka. I liked them both, and I particular I enjoyed the Kentucky poems of Manning, with his allusions to eccentric country people. I guess he’s met my family.
Before I left the festival I found a booth from a local literary agency, and one of the agents asked whether I wanted to make a pitch. I felt uneasy to suddenly be called on to convince someone that my book is worth reading, but I said yes. I told her about the novel Benedict and Miramar. Oddly, however, she did not light up with enthusiasm. She seemed to imply that the book should either be for young adults, since Miramar is the age of the heroes in those books, or else my book is for men, since Benedict is a man. I guess that makes Les Misérables a book for ex-convicts. But the agent was pleasant, and she said that I might send her a synopsis, so that she can reject it a second time.
In contemplating going to this festival, I wondered whether this is a phenomenon that will eventually die like bookstores, but from what I saw today, I’d say no. Writers can always read from their work, people can always browse booths, and corn dogs will always be crunchy.