I and fellow book-mad locals borrow well over 2 million items from our libraries each year, fossick through 50 tonnes of books at the Founder’s Book Fair and buy enough books to keep local booksellers (somewhat) solvent. We also attend book festivals like the Volume Mapua Literary Festival last month, or the upcoming Page & Blackmore Pukapuka Talks (previously Readers and Writers) at the Nelson Arts Festival in October.
Why? On the face of it the answer seems obvious: we like books. Don’t we simply go to book festivals the way rugby enthusiasts attend rugby matches, or music lovers attend concerts?
Someone, who even Professor Google cannot help me identify, declared that wanting to meet a writer because you love books, is like wanting to meet a pig because you like pork. On the other hand, novelist A. L. Kennedy who writes about writing for The Guardian - and attends a lot of book festivals - suggests that a writer’s work is “in various ways, highly characteristic of who they truly are” and so, if you “like the fruit” you will probably also ”enjoy the tree.”
However even she warns that it can be a “disturbing experience” to actually meet the author “you've been tremendously intimate with” through a reading of their books. “Observe your idol for a while before approaching” she cautions, and “should he or she cuff an old lady out of their way or step on a dog, then maybe allow them to retain their mystery.”
I can attest that not one dog was stepped on, or old lady cuffed, during the Volume Mapua Literary Festival. The authors - poets, essayists, novelists, historians - New Zealanders all, and their interviewers, were remarkably well-behaved, open and responsive in conversation and when fielding questions from the audience. Even the mobile phones attending the festival were well-behaved: just once, one of them had the temerity to interrupt a session but it was hastily silenced.
It’s said that it takes a village to raise a child. After attending the Auckland Writers Festival earlier this year I’ve decided that a village is also the perfect place to raise a book festival. True, the calibre and variety of the New Zealand and international writers at the Auckland festival was extraordinary. However, the sheer size of the event was overwhelming and exhausting. The crowds in Auckland where large, and consequently so were the queues for refreshments, toilets and book signings. The venues were large too. The best seats went to the nimblest and fleetest of foot. For the rest of us, the authors and their interviewers were but tiny dolls on a faraway stage, more easily visible on giant video screens rather than in the too, too distant flesh.
In comparison, the book festival held in the Mapua village hall was a restful and intimate affair which shrank both the physical and psychic distance between writer and reader. In this quiet space it was a delight to follow the writers wherever they and their readings led, from a backyard washing line or lemon tree, to central Otago, the Kermadecs, Prague or Menton. In the quietness it was easy to enjoy the magic that is born of open-hearted conversation and to celebrate the human creative impulse. I enjoyed the Mapua festival and I will enjoy Page & Blackmore Pukapuka Talks later this month too: the everyday world has too few creative conversations undertaken in a peaceful and celebratory environment.
Printed on the brown paper bags which enclose books bought from Wellington’s Unity Books, there’s a wonderful celebratory riff about the nature of books by Nigel Cox. A book, it says, is “Something that sings. That argues. That tells a story. That seduces … explains how … keeps you awake … recalls the past … can see the future … that may not be seen again … that says just what you’ve been thinking … never gets tired … that remembers all the words all the way through to the end without a single mistake: something wonderful.”
And that is pretty much exactly what a good book festival is too.