Novel events turn new page for literature
The Washington Times, (March 8, 2001).
'E-book' awards, traditional forms featured
A good book is the best of friends, the same today and forever
- Martin Farquhar Tupper
Poet and University of Virginia English professor Gregory Orr, in black turtleneck and black jeans, is enjoying a moist slice of banana bread and a large cup of doe in the back room of the Charlottesville Coffee Co., the city's newest establishment for the bookish and java-inclined.
The 54-year-old professor has taught at the university for 26 years. He punctuates his sentences with sips and munches, talking about lyric poetry, its fundamental purpose in society, its history - "It's always existed in every culture;" he says - and ultimately about the upcoming Virginia Festival of the Book, Charlottesville's yearly blowout for book lovers.
"The festival is one of those sure things," he says. "It's going to get better and more interesting. It's like a carnival with all sorts of sideshows."
Yes, indeed. The five-day free festival put on by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has more than quadrupled in attendance since it began in 1995, when only 3,000 bibliophiles took part. This year's shindig, which runs from March 21 to 25, features close to 300 authors, editors and publishers participating in more than 180 programs to be held in almost 100 locations across the city, and includes the first-ever independent awards for electronic books from small publishers.
Festival events include workshops, book signings, discussion groups and readings. Among the participants: Mr. Orr, who has published seven poetry collections and a biography of his mentor Stanley Kunitz, one of old Virginia professors and current poet laureate of the United States.
Mr. Orr will read his own work as will the 95-yearold Mr. Kunitz, and the next day Mr. Orr will take part in another reading.
Love to read? The Virginia Festival of the Book is the last word in literary celebrations.
"So many people write and read here already, and of course, people like to come here," says Nancy Damon, the event's program director. A native of Durham, N.C., Ms. Damon exudes enthusiasm about the festival and the city.
"Writers just get excited when you ask them if they'd like to come to Charlottesville for a weekend," she says. "And it's really kind of neat to walk downtown and see people stumbling around with their programs, trying to figure out where they are. Sales go up at all the usedbook stores."
Charlottesville, 120 miles southwest of Washington, consistently ranks among the nation's top 10 book markets (in terms of bookstores per 10,000 households), and its 80,000 residents support more than 25 new and used book shops. Perhaps not surprisingly, the city boasts more than a dozen coffee shops, many of which will host festival readings, book signings and jazz improvisations.
The literary tradition here is long. After all, this is Jefferson country. Here, the third president and author of the Declaration of Independence lived, atop Monticello Mountain outside the city, and here he built his "academical village," the University of Virginia, which today dominates the city's economy and culture.
In 1826 Edgar Allan Poe studied at the university. Later students included somber Franco-American novelist Julien Green and the internationally recognized Erskine Caldwell, author of "'Tobacco Road." During the 1956-5' school year, Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner was the university's first writer in residence.
This year's festival follows in those footsteps. Irish novelist John Banville and Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, for example, will read from their work on March 24. Southern fiction writer Lee Smith, author of "Saving Grace;" will speak at the opening ceremony March 22 and sign books afterward, and will give several readings.
Other prominent novelists participating include Carrie Brown, John Casey, Patricia Elam, Ann Hood, Heather Ross Miller and Alexandra Ripley. The renowned black American author Paule Marshall, who wrote "Brown Girl, Brownstones" and the just-published "The Fisher King," will speak at the festival luncheon on March 23.
The festival is also hosting writers in other genres. Along with Mr. Orr and Mr. Kunitz, the poets include Robin Becker, associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State University; Richard Chess from the University of North Carolina; the University of Virginia's own George Garrett, who has written 30 books; and L enard D. Moore, founder and executive director of the Carolina African-American Writer's Collective.
Children's writers Philip and Hannah Hoose, Morgan Simone Daleo, Kathy L. May and Peter Walpole will read for the youngsters.
Singer-songwriter Pete Seeger -- who wrote "Turn, Turn,Turn" and the music to "If I Had a Hammer"- will perform twice on March 21.
Among the nonfiction presenters are hiking author Leonard M. Adkins, historian William Miller, writer and broadcaster Katie Davis and Virginia Civil War professor Gary Gallagher.
One extra attraction: W Nathaniel "Nat" Howell, currently the John Minor Maury Jr. professor of public affairs at the university and U.S. ambassador to Kuwait from 1987 to 1991 -a time that included the Gulf war. His newly published book, "Siege," is the story of the Americans trapped in Kuwait at the time of the Iraqi invasion that started the war..
The white-bearded Mr. Howell says the book, written with Roberta Culbertson, s a "human story" but also the story of an organization hews affiliated with: the Critical Incident Analysis Group, a think tank based at the university that studies crises that could undermine people's faith in democratic institutions.
"We study crises and leadership in those situations," he says, such as the time when Iraqi forces invaded and surrounded his embassy and staff and trapped them in the embassy compound.
Twenty thousand American citizens were also caught in Kuwait behind hostile lines. Ordered out by the Iraqis, Mr. Howell and eight others nonetheless stayed behind - and as he traces his reasoning, he comes back to the commonwealth.
"I was raised in Virginia," he says, "and somehow it was communicated to me by my teachers that you have to do certain things. I couldn't leave those people behind. It was my job. We did not realize it at the time, but waking up every morning and seeing the American flag still in town gave them a lot of hope. I can see that now."
But printed books on paper. Aren't they yesterday's children? So it seems by the buzz that surrounds "e-books" or electronic books, those that can be downloaded from the Internet and read off a personal computer.
As if to confirm that this year might well mark their massmarket e-mergence, on March 24 the book festival will feature a full-day conference on the e-book industry and the opportunities it offers writers, with presentation of the first Independent e-Book Awards at noon.
The Charlottesville awards will not be the first for electronic books. That honor goes to Germany's Frankfurt Book Fair, which last October hosted the first electronic-book awards in history. Because the awards were dominated by the big publishers, the smaller publishers decided to mount their own, one akin to the movies' Sundance Film Festival.
Who are these electronic-book writers?
"Some of them are authors of very traditional sort looking to maximize their exposure -they're interested in dissemination. Others are drawn to it as writers by an interest in what you can do when you're free from the punted page,`" says David Seaman, 38, a medievalist (ironically enough) who runs the University of Virginia's E--Text Center, the world's largest digital library.
Mr. Seaman is among the judges of the 90-some entries for the Independent e-Book Awards and will take Dart in the conference's panel discussions on the electronic-book phenomenon
With hypertext - an on-line "click-on" ability that allows the reader to jump to other sites or pages - images, sounds and even video can be added to electronic books, Mr. Seaman says. One of this year's authors is M.J. Rose, whose self-published novel, "Lip Service," was discovered on line, then picked up by the Doubleday Book Club and Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. Miss Rose, who writes for Wired magazine, will take part in several panels.
Of course, that's only the beginning of the electronic-book story now unfolding across the country. RCA's Rocket Book - a reading device bigger than a Palm Pilot but smaller than a laptop - lets its owners download as many as 100 books and carry them around. Chain bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders plan to install in-store ports from which Rocket Book owners can download their books.
None of this is news to Charlottesville, where the main public library now offers Rocket Books on loan, along with a limited digital library.
In fact, this city may be the most fitting spot for an electronic-book conference. The University of Virginia's E-Text Center, at http://etext.virginia.edu, currently holds some 50,000 volumes in 15 languages - including Latin, Tibetan and Apache - and as of this month has distributed 1.8 million ebooks worldwide.
The center allows lovers of world classics to read, free, such works as Shakespeare, Dickens, Ovid and Buddhist scriptures. Its collection of English and American works totals 1,600 titles. Readers who use the center's free Microsoft Reader system can download any of these directly onto a desktop or into a Palm Pilot.
"The concept of out-of-print is something that we're going to have to explain to our children," Mr. Seaman says.
Well, maybe. But no matter how they're published, books will always be with us - and with Charlottesville.
"One of the great things about Charlottesville is our love affair with books here," Mr. Howell says. "I'm always acquiring books. They are my most valuable possessions."