What follows are two accounts of the Brooklyn Book Festival, which took place last weekend around Columbus Park. Being the pair of eager readers that we are, we were both anxious to write about the experience.
We created these pieces independently over the last week, and handed them over to one another for editing this morning. They are, in a word, twins.
Rather than choose one over the other (each of us is convinced that the other’s is best), we decided to publish them both, side by side. We hope you enjoy our (eerily similar) perspectives, and that you take them as further evidence that we are, truly, two of a kind.
Noah’s essay is first, followed by Mary Cate’s. Enjoy. Twice.
It was a grey morning, and hot. The sky overhead may as well have been one continuous cloud. Uniform, hazy light washed over the street, which was startlingly empty as Mary Cate and I stepped out onto the sidewalk. We shouldn’t have been surprised. It was, after all, eight o’clock on Sunday morning, and to most Manhattanites, Sunday mornings are for drawn curtains, Alka-Seltzer, and the distant possibility of bottomless mimosas at a late-morning brunch. For those less inclined to Saturday night revelry, or indeed revelry of any kind, it was the sort of morning that might encourage one to curl up indoors with a good book and absent-mindedly stroke a tabby cat. Tempting though that prospect was, we marched on, drawn like a pair of magnets towards the promise of not just one good book, but many. We were on our way to the Brooklyn Book Festival, and no amount of dreary, sticky heat could stop us.
I had, without really knowing it, been training for this day for most of my life. Growing up, I would accompany my mother to library conferences and author events across the Midwest, my life and growth charted through the signed souvenirs dotting my bookshelf: Early on, Kevin Henkes and Jan Brett; then Kate DiCamillo and Gary Paulsen; more recently Neil Gaiman and Ann Patchett. But none of these events were quite like the scene that greeted Mary Cate and me in Brooklyn Heights. Hundreds of tents, each housing an author or a publisher or an independent store, stretched through Columbus Park and spilled onto neighboring streets. A stage and sound system faced the courthouse steps. Every human, it seemed, was carrying a New York Library tote bag. Now this was a party.
We were running late to a panel we wanted to see – I don’t remember who, and I don’t particularly remember what – so we hurried indoors with little more than a longing glance in the direction of the tents. An hour later, we hurried back out for a proper poke around. Brightly-colored paperbacks winked at us from dozens of tables. Vendors smiled, beckoned, offered bookmarks and pins. Authors encouraged us to avail ourselves of their latest releases. This was high theater, and more than once we succumbed to the temptation of a really good discount. We tore ourselves away again after forty blissful minutes, five books and one tote bag the richer, to stand in the queue for our next panel, already two blocks long with half an hour to spare. At last, we settled into our seats, craning our necks for a glimpse of Margaret Atwood, seventy-six and spry with a halo of silver hair. She spoke about her latest project – a comic book starring a superheroic cat-bird mutant – with the kind of candor and confidence that must come naturally after forty-five years of literary stardom. The book sounded utterly ridiculous, its author utterly delighted.
More panels followed as morning ebbed away into afternoon. We were tempted by the chance to see a quartet of New York’s greatest cultural critics (Wesley Morris, A. O. Scott, Margo Jefferson, and Hua Hsu), so we overcame our misgivings about the panel’s theme: Social Media and the Future of Criticism. Having worked in social media, neither of us was especially eager to devote even a moment’s thought to the subject on a Sunday afternoon. Happily, none of the panelists seemed up for it, either. The first words out of Mr. Morris’ mouth: “I know the thing says ‘Social Media and the Future of Criticism,’ but I thought we could just talk about what we do?” He apologized to anyone in the crowd who was desperate for deep thoughts about Twitter, and plunged into a sweeping conversation about art, subjectivity, and the role of the critic. Mr. Scott’s 2016 book Better Living Through Criticism became our sixth purchase of the day.
It was well past normal lunching hour when we paused to refuel and schedule the last part of our afternoon. Jessica Valenti, most recently the author of acclaimed feminist memoir Sex Object, was scheduled to appear at a final panel in the park. Her book has been on our wish list for months, and we were eager to hear her speak. We took our seats on the courthouse steps, waited until the panelists came on stage, and felt a lurch of disappointment: No Jessica. In the end, it didn’t matter – Rebecca Traister, one of Valenti’s would-be co-panelists, unleashed a deluge of searing insights into and indictments of backward American racial and sexual politics. It was an inspired – and inspiring – performance, one that left us eager for a chance to buy her book about the historical trajectory of unmarried American women, All The Single Ladies.
Most of the rest of the crowd, it seemed, felt the same way. By the time we fought our way through the throng, the book had sold out. Not one to give up easily on the prospect of adding a new book to our shelves, I pitched a wild idea to Mary Cate: If she would hang around the back of the line, I would run to the Barnes and Noble we had seen over lunch and snatch one of their copies – it was a relatively new and popular book; they were bound to have a few in stock. I went cantering off down the street and arrived, slightly out of breath, to stand in a line in front of the information desk. A few interminable minutes crunched by before I was informed that the book was, improbably, not available. Mary Cate suggested that I hurry back – perhaps we’d at least be able to ask this brilliant writer a question or two? I was not so ready to accept defeat. There was an independent bookstore another few blocks down the road, and it seemed a shame not to give it a try. So off I ran to Book Court. The store clerk, undoubtedly used to the idea that the search for a specific book could send one into obsessive fits, seemed unfazed by my harried, sweaty appearance as he directed me to the very back of the store. There, on the bottom shelf, sat a final, beleaguered copy of All The Single Ladies. I paid, and dashed back to the park.
I found Mary Cate, sole vestige of the once-mighty line, chatting happily with Rebecca about the industrialization of modern marriage. Ms. Traister, for her part, seemed simultaneously delighted and a little aghast at the lengths (exactly one mile, according to Google Maps) that I had gone through to get my hands on her work. As I caught my breath, she inscribed our copy: “For Mary Cate and Noah, here’s to happy, equal, joyful unions between independent people.”
It was the perfect ending to a fairytale day. The only blemish either of us could detect was, of course, the age-old quandary known to book-lovers the world over: Which one to read first?
I wasn’t sure what to expect when we left the flat Sunday morning. The sky was grey, an expansive dimness that looked like it might rain all over the bright flame of erudition I was hoping to bask in at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Incidentally, that’s about as far as my imaginings had gotten: A dreamy mirage of books and knowledge, tidily chopped into hour-long sessions, as if we were all back at university. But one look at the sky burned off that dream-like cloud: Today was a day to stay at home and read.
I didn’t mention my instinct to Noah. He was looking forward to the festival, and before I’d seen the sky, so was I. And with each step away from the comfort of a cup of tea and my current read, my mind slid back to wondering what the festival would be like.
I’ve never been to a book festival before. I’ve been to Austin City Limits, a popular music festival, and in high school I was a member of a singing group that performed at the Texas Renaissance Festival. But a book festival – arguably the only sort that centered on something I was interested in – was less familiar to me than crowds of strangers in chainmail.
We stumbled off the train and into Brooklyn Heights mere minutes before our first panel began at 10AM. The conversation centered on understatement in memoir writing, and though we listened, I think both Noah and I were guilty of splitting our attention between the panel and the tantalizing riot of tents visible through the room’s very tall windows. By the time the session was over, we were itching to explore.
As the clock struck 11, we bounded into Columbus Park, throwing ourselves into the sea of strangers that flowed between the rows of bright white tents. Each tiny island housed a new delight: Publishers, authors, and indie publications displayed their wares on standard rental tables, the sort my memory associates with after-church coffee and doughnut gatherings. Only here, each text had the potential to be holy, and I felt like I belonged. One of the very first tables we stopped at was Overlook’s, a New York-based press whose icon was a darling winged elephant. We promptly picked out two books, Stephen Fry’s memoir, More Fool Me, and Darryl W. Bullock’s colorful Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!! The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer. The purchase earned us a tote bag, free of charge, which we clutched at gratefully. With this many booksellers abounding, the writing on the wall was clear: We’d need all the carrying power we could get.
We spent the next half hour or so strolling contentedly about the tents, browsing titles and exchanging small smiles with the guardians of the tables. We made our second purchase within 15 minutes of the first, drawn in by a table of delightfully bite-sized classics. The printer of these zany copies was Melville House, an independent Brooklyn publisher, and the table in question was dedicated to their HybridBooks series. These editions are striking for more reasons than their colorful, minimalist design: As the name suggests, the HybridBooks program combines print with e-books – when you purchase a physical copy of a text, you also gain access to relevant digital material, such as newspaper articles, stories, and photographs. (Fitzgerald in drag, for example.) As for the titles, each is a novella, which is exciting because the novella doesn’t often get much love, and there are subsequently many by well-known writers that remain virtually unknown to the average reader. We made off with Fitzgerald’s The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, Baudelaire’s Fanfarlo, and Austen’s Lady Susan.
Though it’s hard to compete with tables full of books, some alternative vendors managed to attract our attention. Most notably, The London Review of Books enticed new subscribers with a delightfully hybridized sign-up machine: a typewriter with an iPad fitted where the paper was usually held. Crowds queued enthusiastically for a chance to clack away at the typewriter’s keys and watch as their text appeared on the digital screen. But the biggest crowd we’d see was yet to come.
Noah and I had skipped an 11-12 panel in order to line up early for entry into Margaret Atwood’s noon event, and we were feeling very pleased with ourselves as we walked over to the auditorium half an hour early. Our self-satisfied smirks slid right off our faces as we rounded the corner and saw the line. It was several dozens of people long. Undeterred, we started walking towards its end – that is, what we thought was its end. When we finally found the tail of the queue, it was threatening to round a third corner. Wrapped halfway ‘round the block, we’d learned our lesson: Never underestimate Margaret Atwood.
As it turned out, the same lesson can be applied to her work. A veteran novelist, short story writer, poet, children’s book author, writer of screen plays, nonfiction, scripts, and adapter of Shakespeare, she was at the festival to speak about her latest project: a graphic novel. Starring a cat-bird hybrid, Angel Catbird inspired a discussion that ranged from the CRISPR (a gene editing tool) to the safety concerns of birds. The former is something she’s interested in but somewhat horrified by; the latter is a cause she’s passionate about, and she includes factoids on the subject on each page of Angel Catbird. She was a pleasant speaker, with a deep, steady voice. She answered questions decisively. Regarding the election, Margaret had this to say: “You’re all welcome in Canada.” Her panel was, in a word, delightful.
After Margaret was finished, and after enjoying another panel on different expressions of love, we lined up once again for a conversation that we were particularly interested in: “Social Media and the Future of Criticism.” One source of our interest was panelist A. O. Scott, a New York Times film critic who’d written a book we’d had our eye on since its debut: Better Living Through Criticism.
I’ve not read many reviews, but I’ve long been interested in criticism: Critical thought is the way of the world in my brain. That’s all well and good from an academic perspective, and it’s served me well in the professional startup world, but there’s no denying that the word “critical” carries an intensely negative connotation in our society. You’re into criticism? You’re a jerk.
I think of criticism as an opportunity. To improve. To explore. To understand. For someone like me, Scott’s book’s description is impossibly tantalizing, extolling the creative virtues of criticism, explaining its societal value: “The time for criticism is always now,” Scott explains, “because the imperative to think clearly, to insist on the necessary balance of reason and passion, never goes away.”
The panel was invigorating. Early in the conversation, Wesley Morris, Margo Jefferson, Hua Hsu, and A. O. Scott explained their ways of thinking about culture and the art they write about. Each of them asserted a lifelong interest in our relationship to the world, in analyzing why people create the things they create. Hsu noted that he didn’t like it when people asked for his favorites, as he was interested in everything. His favorite genre of music? Thinking about music.
I so identified with what they were saying. I was practically bouncing in my chair as I leaned over and hissed in Noah’s ear, “These are my people.” Noah nodded vigorously.
When it was over, we snatched up Better Living Through Criticism, and A. O. Scott signed it for us. I was too nervous to ask him how he’d suggest a person start pursuing a career in cultural criticism, but the seed was planted.
We chatted excitedly about being critics all through our hasty lunch, but one panel later, we were gearing up for the day’s final conversation: “Single Wo/man seeking…”. Jessica Valenti of Sex Object: A Memoir was to be a panelist, and we were curious to hear her speak. Sitting on the steps of the main stage in Columbus Park, we learned that Valenti was unable to make it. But we weren’t disappointed: panelist Rebecca Traister swept us up in a matter of minutes. She was engaging, passionate, and intelligent. At one point, she summed up the history of America from a feminist perspective in about 6 minutes. Noah and I sat entranced each time she opened her mouth. The gospel according to Rebecca Traister: now there’s a holy text.
After the panel ended, the crowd mad-dashed to Greenlight Bookstore’s tent to purchase All the Single Ladies and line up for Traister’s signature. By the time we’d made our way to the front of the line, each copy had been sold. We were devastated. We needed Rebecca’s book. We needed Rebecca’s signature. Refusing to accept defeat, we feverishly power-walked through the tents in search of it, but most vendors were all packed up, and her book was nowhere to be found.
“I can run to that bookstore across the street from where we had lunch,” Noah offered. “Maybe they’ll have it.”
“You won’t make it,” I despaired. The line for Rebecca’s signature was already dwindling – a sand-filled hourglass in fast-forward.
“I’ve go to try.”
I pressed our credit card into his hand and he took off, his gazelle legs windmilling across the square. As I waited and wrung my hands, Noah went calling at two different bookstores. At the second, he got lucky: We were sold Book Court’s very last copy. “KEEP HER THERE,” read his frenzied text message.
As he was hurtling the half-mile back to Columbus Park, my luck ran dry: The very last feminist in line left with a satisfied smile, and I was up. Face-to-face with Rebecca, I had no idea what to say. So I blurted, “HI. You’re amazing. Greenlight is sold out of your book and my fiancé went running to find it. He got it somewhere and he’s running back right now. I don’t know when he’ll get here. Soon, I think. Do you mind waiting?”
To her credit, Rebecca looked only mildly startled and very kindly agreed to wait and chat with me. I asked if she taught. (Yes, though with the election going she’s currently focusing on writing.) I asked if she had any reading recommendations. (Spinster by Kate Bolick.) Thankfully, not two minutes passed before Noah’s long and lanky form nearly collided with the table.
“Oh, wow. You weren’t kidding,” she said.
We continued chatting, and conversation turned to the industrialization of weddings, a topic she’d spoken on briefly during the panel. We shared our experiences planning our own impending nuptials, our surprise at how many vendors there were, at how event-like the conversation around wedding planning had become. We said good-bye, and she presented us with our book. The inscription still makes me smile.
If my opinion hasn’t already been made clear by this opus of a recollection, I loved the Brooklyn Book Festival. There’s nothing quite like hearing authors speak, and there’s certainly nothing quite like buying a new book you’re excited about – much less 7. I cannot wait for next year. Maybe, if I’m lucky, there will be someone there in chainmail.