Book festivals are to literature what fashion shows are to beauty. That’s this writer’s conclusion after wandering around the Brooklyn Book Festival.

The day looks promising.  Sunlight shimmers and cascades freely. Mackerel clouds dribble away and belie fears of rain. But it is still too early to make a call. It had rained yesterday and things got messy. 

New York City’s weather has been wobbly — fall’s gloominess and summer’s exuberance take turns, like children playacting cops and robbers. If it rains, much of the Brooklyn Book Festival (BrBF) will perhaps be cancelled.  That would, as they say, just suck big time. 

In one of the early sessions, Reza Aslan — an attractive man of Iranian origins, with greying hair, spectacles and an easy smile — discusses the possibility of social change and resilience with Andrew Zolli, who has a new book out on the same topic. To Aslan, the future of social struggles is more Tahrir Square and less of the Bolshevik Revolution.  A leaderless tide, as opposed to a coup by an ideological vanguard. Technologies, Aslan says, allow for mass consensus to evolve dynamically. I don’t know much about this, but it sounds interesting. Zolli, in contrast, is less convinced. To him, social change will come through a portfolio of revolutions. Some movements maybe leaderless, as in the Arab Spring, and some may require a leadership. Who knows? I let them be and walk out to get something to eat.

By 11 in the morning, the sun is finally out but Brooklyn is still chilly. I walk to hear the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård and the Norwegian-American essayist Siri Hustvedt. Over the past month, I have been ploughing through the first of Knausgård’s six-volume autobiography. It is a monument to self-awareness and an experiment in truth telling. Understandably, and controversially, the book is called My Struggle. The lines to get in snake all around the foyer of the Brooklyn Borough Hall. A tall blonde woman loses her cool at the organisers for having to wait. Soon, a consensus about being badly organised slithers through the crowd. It’s a fatuous and self-indulgent claim. But perception is what it is. After a half hour’s wait, a collective groan goes out when an organiser announces that the room can take no more attendees. I can’t get in. And somewhere at the back of my head, I am glad. Now I can amble about guiltlessly. 

Taking literature seriously

A familiar face smiles and waves. Amitava Kumar, author of one of my favourite books Husband of a Fanatic, is a regular at Brooklyn. He is here to moderate a session on “The Politics of Identity”. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, along with three others, he had read passages from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a book banned under the import laws. Much hand-wringing followed: about legality of their actions, appropriateness, consequences and so on. In the end, nothing really happened. Yet what the whole episode reminds us of is the power that writers have in a country like India, where de jure and de facto  prohibitions exist. Reviewing novelist Shahriar Mandanipour’s “Censoring an Iranian Love Story”, the noted critic James Wood of The New Yorker writes: “Perhaps we look enviously at those who have the misfortune to live in countries where literature is taken seriously enough to be censored, and writers venerated with imprisonment.” Here at Brooklyn, there is no principle to transgress. No idea is sacrosanct, except the freedom to express. Everything is permitted. Not too surprisingly, it is an air without frisson that flows here. 

For now, I decide to walk around the festival grounds. From the stairs of the main building, one can look down and see a flotilla of silvery carapaces of stalls. Small publishing houses, literary magazines, the New York Times, publishers of Japanese cartoons, university press — all have pitched their tents and hawk their offerings. It is unclear how the stalls are designated but some juxtapositions are delicious. Walking past the “Romance Writers of America” one arrives at a publishing house called “The Coffin Factory”. Love leads to Death. 

A collection of writings, from 1939 to 2009, from Dylan Thomas to Githa Hariharan, put out by the literary magazine The Kenyon Review catches my eye. But it’s an expensive collection. I look at the book longingly but put it back. A kindly member of the exhibit tells me: “Come back in the evening, it should be on sale.” I smile; she smiles as we share this little conspiracy.

Elsewhere, the cash-rich Huffington Post has 10 iPads dedicated to browse their weekly iPad-only literary magazine called, not so surprisingly, “Huffington”.  A few stalls down, an enthusiastic and overweight man hands out his literary magazine published from New Jersey. He is a one-man operation and his magazine is sheaves of photocopied leaflets stapled together. The thin red line between self-belief and self-delusion is fickle.  Somehow, I am moved by his dedication. 

At another session, three cartoonists draw whatever children ask for.  One young boy requests for an “Ostrich playing Chess” and the cartoonists ply their trade. Bored, but indulgent, parents sit around and check their Facebook on their smart phones, while their wards demand and holler for pink elephants. Further down, T-shirt companies with a fondness for Cartesian quips have it both ways when their wares declare: “I read therefore I think” and “I think therefore I read.” A pulp fiction publisher with posters of white women with heaving breasts and sumptuous thighs says it, rather unfashionably, without a shade of grey: “Bad girls need love too.” Who can deny that? 

The new America

On a public stage, four young writers — an Asian woman, a Black man, two white men — none of whom I recognise, read passages on a stage from the oeuvre of Mailer, Vidal, Whitman and other American greats. The passages they read are funny, provocative and profound. Their voices are new America.

In the line for a conversation between Siddhartha Deb and Pankaj Mishra, a woman tells me: “Come to think of it, I have never read Pankaj Mishra, but I like him.” I smile vacuously and can’t think of anything useful to say. Later, Deb reads a passage about a Manipuri woman in Delhi, who struggles to find her footing. It is an evocative section from his book The Beautiful and the Damned.

The passage tries to narrate into existence lives of those who are at the periphery of wealth and validation, despite great struggles to be at the centre of India’s economic story. The whole book is, he says, an effort to question the triumphalist narratives of India that claim to have “arrived, on the basis of building a shopping mall”. There is a sliver of contempt for the puffed-up pretensions of the Indian upper classes and how they interact with the “underclass”.  It makes the largely white upper classes of Brooklyn laugh politely. In a more explicit and less personal way, Pankaj Mishra talks about his new book In the Ruins of Empire. It is his effort to excavate macro-histories that are largely forgotten. Mishra, however, is more guarded and scholarly about his reservations. Perhaps it is his deliberate speaking style.

All public conversations during the day have an element of performance to them. And all performances rely on the construction of public personas. So it is with authors and their texts. Who is observing who, remains the question. Deb’s book is marked by a highly self-aware narrator who travels in India and responds to all that he sees. Mishra says he has explicitly avoided the omniscient and probing “I” in his latest effort. This segue into the craft of writing, about the interiority of narration, was perhaps the most interesting part of the conversation. It was also shortest as well. Towards the end, Mishra makes a subtle point that ideas of history and the present need more prosaic exigencies: libraries, archives, distribution and funding. In absence of these, the ideas of Self in a nation are stunted and inevitably immiserate. Amen, says the man behind me. The New York Public Library system is to undergo budgetary cuts.

A staggering logistical exercise

By mid-afternoon, the feminist author Naomi Wolf has the largest audience I have seen so far. Her new book Vagina is the topic. She seems like a fun person, a slightly loopy aunt you would confide your secrets to. But her book on female sexuality has come under fire.  Other “real” feminists have criticised her “silly book” on grounds of dubious neuroscience. Whatever it maybe, the audience is eating out of the palm of her hand. She wants to teach daughters “radical self-respect”. Despite her fuzziness and New Age-y rhetoric, I liked her for a certain well-meaning openness she exudes.  

Authors like Paul Auster, Edwidge Danticat, Tariq Ali, Pete Hamill, Chris Hedges, E.O. Wilson, Katrina vanden Heuvel and others are scheduled to participate in conversations. Over 280 authors, 104 panels during the course of 12 hours. It is a staggering logistical exercise at one level. At another, what these conversations add up to is unclear.

Is it simply just publishing industry’s marketing push? Or does something more precious burble up into the public consciousness? The philosopher Simon Critchely and interviewer Paul Holdengraber talk about Truth and Lies in conversation. Their freewheeling and fun talk soon enlarges in scope and grows whiskers. They riff about the origins of philosophy (“when an old man hung out with younger men”), the filmmaker Werner Herzog, the difference between “the ecstatic truth” versus “the accountant’s truth” and the hip-hop mogul Jay-Z. In the end, talking about nothing and everything, they cheerfully agree with Kafka about Truth in human affairs: “there is hope, but not for us”.

During the course of the day, I walk into some of the panels, and walk out of others. No one is offended by the ongoing traffic of interlopers. This freedom to walk away is liberating. Yet, by early evening, it is more fun to sit in the open and enjoy the sun’s heat. Book festivals, in the end, are to literature what fashion shows are to beauty.  Despite their glamour, they can be tiresome. It is a world far removed from the actual act of reading. 

Here talking about reading matters more. Book festivals unintentionally mimic supermarkets — you can walk in, pick and choose, stack up your carts and drive away. What you carry along need not be nourishing or healthy. You can have a good time and have fun, like I did. But, the solitary acts of reading and writing can’t be substituted for all the communal and glamorous conversations about books or how to read. As a culture we have begun to confuse one for the other.

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