The Brooklyn Book Fair is a Pilgrimage for the Secular
Each September, I celebrate Rosh Hashanah by making a pilgrimage across the river. That is, the East River, to the Brooklyn Book Festival. More than any synagogue service, this congregation of authors, intellects and literati (and toddlers, readers, and street fests) is my harbinger of what’s to come: what books have been published, what ideas are au courant, what to look out for. Taking place during the Yamim Noraim, this year the BBF drew major stars — Paul Auster, Naomi Wolf, and 1980s American sitcom legend Tony Danza — and over 280 authors and tens of thousands of attendees. With its own new app (app and honey?) this festival of letters serves as my cultural compass.
Brooklyn is the self-proclaimed axis mundi of America’s writers and much of American literary culture. The book fest celebrates this, selecting and honouring many local scribes. (In its early years, it featured mainly authors with a native connection.) The borough mayor proudly refers to his domain as “Book-lyn”, claiming it has “more writers per square inch than almost anywhere else in the country.” At this year’s event — the 7th and largest so far — there were 14 stages, readings and activities for children and teens, as well as a week of 50 “Bookend” events across the borough.
The actual festival took place on a crisp sunny Sunday, and was centered around Borough Hall near the yuppified neighbourhood of Brooklyn Heights, so plenty of no-carb vegan burgers, bloodless lattes and desks made of organic Astroturf could be purchased as needed. Events took place in the surrounding colleges, societies and churches and queues of readers wrapped themselves around the leafy blocks. Many panels took place in makeshift tents on the square itself, and the main stage was opposite the city hall’s steps, where listeners sat, munching aromatic home-grown smoked meat and less aromatic home-made cheese sandwiches. Though Brooklyn is known for its hipster culture, and while plenty of 1980s cereal-logo-embossed-T-shirts and post-ironic facial coiffes were in attendance, the large crowd comprised an impressive range of ages, colours and creeds, reminding one that many different types of folk read books, and even, that people still read books at all. Tens of thousands from all walks meandered, shmoozed and rubbed strollers in this focal location creating a resounding buzz. The tone was casual, but intellectual. Participants had fun talking about things they took seriously.
The square also held its annual “literary marketplace”. Long rows of over 100 booths representing magazines, publishing houses, and bookstores proved that le livre still runs strong, and that new outfits are opening all the time. Bigger players were present – The Paris Review, McSweeney’s — but so were small, independent publishers and publications — The Coffin Factory, Coral Press (musical fiction). Novel-T sold literary inspired baseball jerseys. Bellevue Literary Press, who took the world by surprise when its book Tinkers won the Pulitzer in 2010, put up a board on which people were asked to write idioms about food. The National Book Foundation asked passers-by to post what they were currently reading. Reps chatted to everyone, adding to this day-long public conversation.
Quintessentially Brooklyn, the programme of events included a culturally-diverse set of speakers, and spanned the heavy and the quirky, probing political, literary and pop- cultural questions. Urgent discussions about the role of race in contemporary America were scheduled alongside sessions focusing on artisanal pencil sharpening. Authors considered the place of family, autobiography, cyborg culture and medicine in fiction; others debated the upcoming election and institutional corruption; yet others spoke of their personal experiences as publishers, immigrants, and writers who debuted over the age of 40. Several events explored comics, and numerous panels addressed international writing (Africa, Trinidad, Jamaica, to name a few). The speakers ranged from mystery novelists to actors and philosophers and, although many of them had recently released titles, the focus was less on book promotion, and more upon open debate and ideas.
To me, this year’s event centered on place, and concentrated on themes of displacement. The panels I attended, at their core, seemed to suggest a new order, asking where and who are we now? I wondered if this sub-theme of (dis)location might be related to a sense of declining empire, the upcoming election, the eternally difficult economy, or whether it might (also) be a marker of America’s continued interest in change (change is the only constant). The theme of place/displacement emerged for me in various areas: nationalism and geography, gender roles and the family, and new technologies.
I began my morning with a large espresso and 500-calorie organic muffin and the question of place not in the family or world, but on the world wide web. Blog editor Jessica Grose (Sad Desk Salad) was confident that “if anyone tries hard enough, they can steal your identity online. We can hope for privacy on the internet, but we can’t expect it.” To Joshua Cohen (Four New Messages) “privacy is a new and transitive idea, which doesn’t have longevity as a concept. Privacy will disappear. We’ll all learn to live as transparently as possible. All neuroses will disappear and we’ll all be very, very happy…Whoever posts something does it voluntarily and knows it will be accessible to 3.5 billion people. There is a psychological mechanism behind it: do you want to be loved, famous, get laid, hurt somebody…? The impulse to reveal leads to a disburdening of fear.” But to Andrew Blum (Tubes), the best research for his non-fiction book was gathered by speaking with people offline: “Everything I really wanted to know was out there in the world, not online.”
Next, I sat on city hall’s steps to hear a sharp (pun intended) and witty conversation about “Artisanal Everything” between New York Times Magazine’s Sam Anderson and David Rees, an artisanal pencil sharpener (How to Sharpen Pencils). The artisanal movement— with its emphasis on authenticity, quality and detail — lends itself particularly well to self-parody (“People take mayonnaise and ice cubes so seriously!”). The focus on singularity has ushered in an expensive new terminology: the semi-sweet, super-cured, strong-soaked chocolate bar costs a hefty $8 — “they had to pay for all those words!” Rees himself is the author of an extensive new vocabulary for particular pencil parts and types of sharpened edges such as the scooped collar and the headless horseman. Pencils, for him, represent a time before America and its “shaft like strength” lost out to China. “Pencils are also yellow to represent Asia,” he explained, outlining their history. “There’s a little bit of racism in every pencil.” His book is a parody of a 19th-century gentleman’s how-to manual, a nod to the recreation of bygone lifestyles behind the artisanal movement.
The noon panel “The Politics of Identity: Do They Still Matter?” was so crowded, workers needed to bring in a whole new shipment of plastic chairs — suggesting, from the start, that yes, they do matter. And that was before we heard from Korean-American panelist Wesley Yang (Paper Tigers) that fewer than 50% of babies born in the US are white. He was frank about Asianness: “Fuck humility, fuck Ivy League mania.” Though America flirts with calling itself a postracial society, Asians like Wang bang their heads on the “bamboo ceiling”: “there is a highly disproportionate number of Asians in junior level positions at elite companies like Facebook, but no Asian-American Vice Presidents.” Although hardworking and successful, Asians appear to lack the social skills needed to succeed and many now attend remedial socialisation classes to learn about the cultural norms of the American corporate hierarchy. Rebecca Walker (Black Cool) highlighted that ‘cool’, ‘funky’ and ‘hip’ are concepts that came from West African culture. “I’ve spent my career until now deconstructing race and saying difference didn’t matter, but in this book I codify black identity.” The cosmology of cool should not be neutralised and Americanised, but be returned to and capitalised upon by its community of origin. According to comedian Baratunde Thurston (How to Be Black) “postracial America is bullshit”; cultures will not understand each other better if they pretend they have no differences (a point I made in my essay about being a Jew in Muslim Whitechapel in the JQ in 2007…). Women have been forgotten from “cool”, and tend to be shamed when they speak out in the black and Asian communities, especially when self-stereotyping about dating, either satirically or honestly exploring their complicated feelings. In Walker’s words: “we must study the shifting face of identity on the female body.”
The main stage panel, “Let’s Talk About Sex: Grappling with Gender in the 21st Century”, was moderated by Hanna Rosin (The End of Men: And the Rise of Women). Carlos Andres Gomez (Man Up: Cracking the Code of Modern Manhood) agonised over the pressure he felt as a young Latino to have sex with any woman who wanted him and urged men to allow themselves to abstain, “to stop killing ourselves over nothing.” Kate Bornstein (A Queer and Pleasant Danger) who grew up a “conservative Jewish boy” is a self-declared “pornographer”. She advocates “putting good porn into play” for increased intimacy as it prompts partners to talk “candidly about their desires, boundaries and fears.” Naomi Wolf, original coiner of the Beauty Myth, shared some of the problems she encountered publicising Vagina: A New Biography: “We can do trans-uterine probes but a woman can’t say vagina on television.”
Finally, bookending my day with another 500-calorie organic muffin, I settled into a pew at “Marriage and Monogamy”, held in the massive and magnificent St Ann and the Holy Trinity Church where writers debated: why marriage? Why monogamy? (As one panellist said: “These are the days of awe, at least we have a few more days to atone”). Famous sex columnist Dan Savage (The Commitment) re-iterated his philosophy of “Monogamish”: monogamy is not for everybody, and is not a moral standard but an unrealistic ideal. “We talk about monogamy like it’s virginity — you lose it once and it’s busted forever. But it should be considered more in line with sobriety — you can be on the wagon and off. If someone cheats twice in 60 years, maybe that means they are good at monogamy.” Savage advocates honest discussion in a long-term relationship; it’s dishonesty that ruins families, not affairs. To anthropologist Christopher Ryan (Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality) the concept of “traditional marriage” is inherently flawed: “Which tradition?” Marriage is a culturally specific event, certainly not celebrated in societies where the foetus is considered an accumulation of semen carrying the best traits of each donor. “Human sex is not about reproduction. The average human has sex one thousand times in a lifetime; for a gorilla, it’s ten times. Monogamy is a social structure. It’s a bit like vegetarianism — it can be ethical, but it goes against the species’ instincts.” Eric Klinenberg (Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone) claimed that half of Manhattan households contain one person. Nearly 50% of American adults are single and 30 million live alone, most between 35 and 60. This, versus 80 years ago, when 20% were single and they were mainly widows. “Years ago, in a troubled marriage, you had to justify to your friends why you needed a divorce; now, you need to justify staying married.” With singledom the new normal, the meaning of family has shifted: “now marriage is not for economic or social security but for happiness and love”. Singles affect urban culture: they spend more time with friends, volunteering, and at bars and readings (a quick poll showed most of this audience was solo). Kristin Davis (The Manhattan Madam’s Guide to Sex) aka “The Manhattan Madam” who ran the prostitution outfit made famous by Eliot Spitzer — and who is now a libertarian aiming for office — opened with: “I’m in church talking about sex while on probation from felony.” She proposed legalising sex work — “It’s always the women who go to jail” — and was happy to share her insider knowledge: “with a client list of 30,000 men, I know desire. People visit prostitutes for many reasons.” Finally, the pastor unexpectedly rose to comment. The crowd held its breath but he was effusive: “thank you for the honest conversation about relationships and sexuality.” He got a round of applause.
Unlike the upcoming annual The New Yorker festival which took place a few weeks later, the BBF happens in one location, bringing everyone together for a day, feeling communal and conversational. Also, it’s free. When I left this year, I thought “Gmar chatimah” — may you, BBF, be written in the book of life, and this year, may lots of books be written.