Why read? Why go to book fests?


Reading is an endangered pastime in the Internet-, video game-, TV-driven 21st century.

Charlottesville managed to deny that grim reality with last week's Festival of the Book, a five-day binge for book addicts unable to control their literary urges. The 11th annual Running of the Bibliophiles lured thousands of readers from all over Virginia and beyond to celebrate the printed word.

St. Patrick's Day passed in a blur of green. The weather went from bitter cold March 16 to spring-like by March 20, but was barely noticed by festival-goers who scurried from one of the 227 events to another. Fortunately for the short-attention-span set, programs lasted only an hour, allowing the opportunity to squeeze in just one more.

And then, even when devotees could take no more readings or discussions or well-meaning questions to authors about how they began writing, still not sated, these tome-heads wanted nothing more than to curl up with a good book. Go figure.

The transforming power of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: UVA prof Mark Edmundson, whose book title Why Read? became an oft-repeated Festival question, kicked off events March 16 with a testimony to how one teacher and one book transformed a 17-year-old football player into a writer, teacher, and scholar. "I was not looking for goodness and virtue in reading Kesey and Malcolm X," said Edmundson. "I was looking for my own dislocation."

Counterintuitive: "We are better off in many decision-making situations with less information than more," said Blink author Malcolm Gladwell to an overflow crowd at Darden's 500-seat auditorium March 16.

Enough about the hair, already: "This is the point where I feel I'm giving an interview to Cosmopolitan," replied the Afro-coiffed, sneakers-and-jeans-clad Gladwell, to the inevitable hair question from the audience.

Possible next Gladwell book: A consideration of why juries get to see the defendant, given sentencing disparities for white and black perps.

An event in which 500 people wet their pants: Alexander McCall Smith, author of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series and speaker at the March 17 festival luncheon that sold out in 90 minutes, has the Omni banquet hall in stitches with rapid-fire deadpan confessions: "I am a serial novelist. It's better to be frank and talk about it. There's no known cure. You continue to write serial novels– and then you die."

"You have only another 858 pages to go": McCall Smith's nominee for the worst first line of a book.

The inevitable how-do-you-write-in-the-female-voice question: "Well, you may have noticed today I'm wearing a skirt," quipped the kilt-clad McCall Smith.

Proof that all critically acclaimed writers aren't literary snobs: When Sharyn McCrumb, author of Appalachian-based ballads, wanted a real-life saint for her modern-day version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, she discovered Number 3, Dale Earnhardt, the subject of her latest book, St. Dale. Forget the ballads. Her next book is going to be about... NASCAR.

"I'm looking to fall in love on the first page": Elinor Lipman, author of The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, answered the inevitable what-are-editors-looking-for question March 17 onstage at Culbreth with McCrumb.

The breast of American culture: Teresa Riordan explored "American ingenuity married with our obsession with breasts" in a discussion of her book, Inventing Beauty, March 18, along with Gilligan Unbound author Paul Cantor, Explorers House: National Geographic author Robert Poole, and Dog's History of America writer Mark Derr.

In the Philippines in the 1897 issue: That's where and when the first bare-breasted pictures appeared in National Geographic, according to former National Geo editor Poole.

The inevitable why-do-you-write question: "Most of us write because we love books– not because we were traumatized by a drunken father," said Michael Pearson, author of Shohola Falls, at the standing-room-only March 18 "Classics in the Background" session at Barnes & Noble.

The obvious sequels to Sex with Kings: Sex with Queens, and then Sex with the Pope, proposed author Eleanor Herman, who appeared in crown and royal raiment at "Scandalous Women," another SRO event, this one overflowing at New Dominion March 18.

Problem with using excommunication as a marketing device: "I'm not Catholic," said Herman about her planned book on licentious Holy Fathers.

Atypical portrayal of George Washington: As John Wayne, offered Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach March 18 discussing his book, Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West. While Thomas Jefferson spent a lot of time writing about the west, Achenbach said, the Father of Our Country was actually out there checking out the best way to get to and profit from the frontier.

Perhaps not the best way to introduce an author: "I really liked the movie of [David Baldacci's first novel] Absolute Power," said Virginia Foundation of the Humanities head Rob Vaughan when he was unexpectedly called upon to moderate Baldacci and Linda Fairstein's "Law to Literature" conversation March 18.

TV crime series that gets a thumbs up from legal thriller writers: Law and Order Special Victims Unit.

Best redefinition of the term "flip books": Nope, not those low-tech cartoons, this is the massive research a writer proudly sticks in the middle of a book over which the reader flips and flips and flips, according to Baldacci.

The inevitable when-did-you-start-writing question: Former criminal defense lawyer Ayelet Waldman didn't start until after she had a child and was bored out of her skull playing Candyland. She thought, "It couldn't be that hard to write a bad murder mystery" with so many of them out there. She described all of her novels, even the mysteries, as "relationship novels" at the March 19 "Generation Gap" reading of her latest book, Daughter's Keeper.

Best place to find the NPR crowd: At the Albemarle County Office Building March 19 for a conversation with ousted Morning Edition host Bob Edwards.

Should NPR listeners be shaken by what happened? Edwards, unceremoniously canned last year, repeatedly endorsed NPR, but noted, "Sometimes you have the wrong people running it. That time is now."

How Edward R. Murrow would handle "balanced" reporting that calls for two opposing viewpoints: "Murrow would not bring in a liar to refute the truth," declared Edwards, whose book is Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism.

Why Edwards won't end up on AM talk radio: "You have to wake up in a rage," he said. "I don't have enough testosterone to do one of the those shows."

The inevitable how-did-you-go-from-journalist-to-novelist question: The Nigerian secret police, said former war correspondent Geraldine Brooks March 20. After being thrown in jail for three days, she decided she didn't want to go to places where she could be imprisoned anymore. She came home, procreated with husband and writer Tony Horwitz, and segued from nonfiction to her latest novel, March.

The author of Confederates in the Attic as a "Civil War bore": Brooks describing Horwitz before she caught the Civil War fever that inspired her own novel about Mr. March, the father in Little Women, and his experience as an idealist in the War Between the States.

Mark "Why Read" Edmundson's life was changed by a book and a teacher.