I go to a lot of literary events: readings, conferences, launch parties, book fairs, you name it. I love trekking down to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference for the faculty readings and going to the Celebration of Southern Literature in Chattanooga. I’ve made the three-hour drive to Memphis any number of times just to hear an author read at Burke’s or the University of Memphis, and of course I’m a regular at Parnassus events in Nashville. But as much as all those things satisfy my inner book fiend, none of them gives me quite the same pleasure as the Southern Festival of Books.
Every year, as I walk up to the Legislative Plaza on the festival’s first day, I feel a sense of exhilaration that is born of something more than the pure nerdy thrill of encountering all those books and their authors. Part of it has to do with the site—the pleasingly open, uncluttered space flanked by the wide steps and columns of the War Memorial building, with the elegant Capitol perched above it all. It’s simultaneously grand and soothing. And, more important, it’s quintessentially public, a truly civic space that belongs to everyone. Not many people have a more jaded view of government than I do. I frankly dislike authority in all its guises. But seeing our premier piece of state-owned real estate turned over to a free, open-to-all-comers cultural gathering reminds me that I do indeed believe in the value of the collective spirit. The human community can provide some fine things for itself when it comes together, and setting the Southern Festival of Books on Legislative Plaza doubly illustrates that fact.
Another thing that feeds my particular delight in the festival is the way it caters to a very broad spectrum of tastes. I wouldn’t exactly say there’s something for everyone. I mean, it’s a book festival—if your idea of a good time involves blood spilled or wet t-shirts, you should probably make other plans for your weekend. But thanks to its ambitious size and the commitment of its wonderful organizers at Humanities Tennessee, there’s something for most—and usually several somethings. The author list is long and varied, and the readings and panel discussions cover an awful lot of cultural ground.
Personally, I go heavy on the literary fiction and poetry sessions, and I’d rather sit in on a discussion of the immigrant experience than a conversation about the Civil War. You’d have to drag me kicking and screaming into anything involving cookbooks. But that’s just me, and in fact I’m glad that the cooks and the Civil War buffs and even little kids have a reason to come to the festival. I like sharing a happening with a lot of people who are obsessed with things I don’t give a hoot about. It’s refreshing.
Increasingly, it seems, our cultural lives are segmented and segregated. Our natural tendency to seek out those who think the way we do and care about the things we care about is grossly amplified in this age of social media and endless, ever-present marketing. We’re corralled into neat little demographic boxes so that people who want to sell us things, or ask for donations, or win our votes (or all of the above) can manage their message better. It amounts to managing us better, and I hate it. At the festival, I never feel like anyone’s manipulating my choices or assuming I belong in one niche or another. I’m not declaring any identity by being there. Just as the physical plaza belongs to all of us, the festival is everybody’s cultural territory. We’re all there to do our own thing—here’s that word again—together.
The Southern Festival of Books is already just about the most beautifully inclusive event around, and I have every faith that its diversity will continue to evolve as the South becomes more and more of a complex melting pot. For now, I know I’m going to see scads of people there this year with whom I don’t have a thing in common and plenty with whom I do, and we’re all going to have good time over the books. I can’t wait.
Maria Browning is a fifth-generation Tennessean who grew up in Erin and Nashville. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has attended the Clothesline School of Writing in Chicago, the Moss Workshop with Richard Bausch at the University of Memphis, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She lives in White Bluff.