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Why Literary Festivals Matter

The Boston Public Library in Boston's Copley Square, pictured in 2015. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Boston Public Library in Boston's Copley Square, pictured in 2015. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Editors' note: Cognoscenti is partnering with the Boston Book Festival for the first time this year. It turns out, Cog and BBF share many of the same writers, including Tracy Strauss, Jabari Asim and Tatiana Schlossberg, who we talked to recently as part of our climate change coverage. The festival is this weekend: in Copley Square on October 19, and Roxbury on October 20. We'll have an interview with Kids' Keynote author, Erin Entrada Kelly, later this week.

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We’re only a few days out from the Boston Book Festival, and about this time during the annual festival cycle — when our tiny staff is bogged down in the minutiae of volunteer shifts, presenter itineraries, and directional signage — we may ask ourselves, why bother putting on a book festival at all?

There must be something to it — most major cities in the world have some kind of celebration of book culture, ranging from venerable events like the Cheltenham (UK) Literary Festival, which just celebrated its 70th anniversary, to the Jaipur (India) Literature Festival that draws more than 3 million attendees, to the brand-new Connecticut Literary Festival in Hartford. There seems to be a near-universal impulse to hold public celebrations of literary culture — but why?

For us, we keep coming back to the idea of “connection,” which coincidentally is also the theme of this year’s Boston Book Festival.

Unless you’re reading a book aloud to someone else, reading is usually a solitary activity. But something special happens when you encounter someone else who loves the same genre, book, or author as much as you do. I’ve seen it happen on the T, when two people register that they’re reading the same book at the same time, glance at each other knowingly, and then dive back into their reading (we booklovers tend to be introverts, you know). A book festival is like that spark of recognition writ large, as readers from all over get downright giddy when they discover that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other people who share their passion for a great book. We've seen more than one spontaneous dance party break out at the BBF, plus at least one marriage proposal.

Book festivals offer opportunities to connect with other readers, but also the chance to connect with authors and their words and ideas in singular and sometimes surprising ways. One of my favorite moments at last year's Boston Book Festival happened when a fire alarm forced the evacuation of one of our major venues, just as WBUR’s Robin Young was about to start the interview portion of her session with Harvard’s Steven Pinker. Rather than disperse back into Back Bay, dozens of audience members stuck around, clustering around on the steps outside Emmanuel Church, utterly rapt and attentive as the two continued their conversation about Pinker's new book while the city swirled around them.

And of course, books themselves offer readers the chance to connect with themes, with characters, with plots, with complex arguments, in a more sustained way than we’re usually required to in our personal or professional lives. Books create space for deeper, more focused connections than are possible in a PowerPoint deck, a bulleted list, or even the most protracted Twitter thread, and they challenge us to grapple with ideas that may be difficult to understand or uncomfortable to confront.

This year, the theme of connection is especially appropriate. After a pilot program in 2018, we are for the first time holding the Boston Book Festival over a full weekend, with Saturday in Copley Square (the home of the BBF since 2009) and Sunday in Roxbury’s Dudley Square. Since the very first BBF, expansion to a full weekend has been attendees’ number one request (with the possible exception of free coffee), and we’re excited about ushering in a truly citywide celebration of books and reading.

Although Dudley and Copley Squares are only a little over 2 miles — a healthy walk or short bus ride — apart, they have historically felt far too distant from one another. Every corner of Boston is full of literary history, of intellectual discourse, of writers and publishers and booksellers and book lovers. Our hope is that this weekend-long festival will connect these two historically significant city squares and allow readers from all over the city and the region to find common ground, that spark of recognition, through their shared identity as lovers of books — as readers.

To view the full schedule and for more information about the Boston Book Festival, please visit www.bostonbookfest.org

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Related:

Norah Piehl Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Norah Piehl is the executive director of the Boston Book Festival. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, a former bookseller, and a long-time book reviewer for publications including Publishers Weekly, the Horn Book Guide, and BookPage.

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