Monday, October 26, 2009

Report: Seattle Bookfest

Seattle loves to read. Every year it takes a position near the top of the list of America’s most literate cities. Name me another major burg that turned its chief librarian into an action figure.

But for some reason – ornery regional independence, I suppose – it has trouble sustaining an annual book festival. Northwest Bookfest went belly-up in 2003. Some enterprising locals rebooted it as Seattle Bookfest. The new version is more low-key, focusing on local authors and independent booksellers. It was held in Columbia City, one of Seattle’s funkier neighborhoods. (Most sections of town aspire to be San Francisco. Columbia City aims to be Portland.)

I wanted to support Bookfest 2.0. Recent Bouchercon coverage by Christa Faust and Donna Moore had me jonesing for some literary action of my own. And Columbia City is also a stop on Seattle’s new light rail line. The Bookfest provided the perfect excuse for my inaugural trip on Saturday afternoon. I’m a destination-not-the-journey kind of guy.

The venue was a former school, with the best panels held in a portable classroom. I swore when I graduated that I would never set foot in such structures again, so thanks for making a liar out of me, Bookfest! We missed some of the panel on graphic novels moderated by Fantagraphics co-founder Gary Groth, but what we did catch was interesting. What I remember:

- The use of space is essentially a writing tool in comics.

- Every comic should be read twice, once for the story and once for the composition.

- If you doubt that we have become a culture that processes information visually, just look at your interaction with your phone.

Next came the crime fiction panel. The session’s title – The Difference Between Mystery & Thriller – seemed a bit obvious, which raised concerns. As did the I’m-gonna-say indifferent moderating. I’m not going to embarrass the woman by name because she never bothered to provide hers. She sat down, asked the authors to introduce themselves, then turned to the audience and said, “OK. Any questions?” Fortunately the panelists – Robert Ferrigno, Michael Gruber and Kevin O’Brien – were pros and sustained a lively if general discussion about thrillers.

We wrapped things up with a reading by National Book Award winner Pete Dexter. Only it wasn’t a reading, more of an alphabetical presentation of his semi-autobiographical novel Spooner. Dexter went from A to Z, offering glimpses of what’s in the book. (“A is for anthill.”) Sometimes he’d read a paragraph or two to illustrate, sometimes he’d describe the material off the cuff, sometimes he’d veer into digressions about current events or words he had trouble pronouncing. The approach worked. Whenever Dexter did quote from Spooner the crowd wanted more, and I’ll be reading the book post haste.

Bumps and glitches aside, it was a promising start for the new iteration of Bookfest. As for light rail: smooth ride, frequent trains, decent fares. I’ll give that another shot, too.

UPDATE: The Stranger’s postmortem of the event is far more dire - and cites this very post in a vaguely disparaging way, which I consider a moral victory. For the record, their assessment jibes with what I saw.