Southern Book Festival Makes a Welcome Show

Southern Book Festival Makes a Welcome Show

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FLIGHT. 46 | NOPE. 40 | Friday, October 7, 2022

It’s been three long years, in some ways, but the wait is only a few days away now: the Southern Festival of Books returns to Nashville October 14-16.

Not that he was completely absent during this period. But COVID concerns have forced the festival into an online-only presence in 2020 and 2021. And while sponsor, Humanities Tennessee’s efforts to keep things going are commendable, VR is still just…virtual .

There’s nothing quite like the energy you feel in a room full of like-minded readers who focus their attention on one or more authors talking about their work. Followed by the opportunity to ask about the alchemy of producing what to me amounts to a miracle.

Certainly, some of these miracles are more miraculous than others. But everyone who reads – and certainly those of us who write too – appreciate the gift that can be found on the pages between the covers.

The second part of the festival’s title sums it up well: A celebration of the written word. The fact that the celebration involves words spoken by the writers beyond just readings is an added treat. It’s no surprise that many people who write entertainingly also speak that way.

I remember a festival session in 2013 featuring one of my favorite writers, Bill Bryson. His books manage to be both reliably informative and endlessly funny. And so, it turned out to be him.

I read a lot of fiction, but I’ve found that when it comes to researching writer sessions at the festival, I tend to lean towards non-fiction. Essays, in particular, and humorous essays, in particular. That’s what brought me to Nashville writer Mary Laura Philpott at the last festival in person. She has another book and will do another session, joined by another Nashville essayist, Margaret Renkl. I expect to be in the audience again.

To broaden my experience, I also hope to attend a conference by an essayist I don’t know yet, Nora McInerny. The festival’s advertisement for her new book states that “with ‘Bad Vibes Only,’ she turns her gaze to our aggressive and oppressive optimistic culture, our obsession with self-improvement, and what it really means to live our lives online.” I am interested.

Another favorite subject of mine is what I’ll call Nashville Stuff, and the festival offers it in different forms. In a non-fiction vein, a Sunday screening features the authors of “Mastodons to Mississippians: Adventures in Nashville’s Deep Past”; and “It was Nashville”.

For Nashville-based fiction, Steven Womack has another in his Harry James Denton series and will be part of the Saturday and Sunday sessions. In the larger context of the South as a whole, you can find Cynthia Tucker, the author of “America’s Southernization”; Imani Perry, author of “South to America”; and Jill Anderson, author of “The Tacky South.” Guess which one rings the loudest in my alley.

Along those lines is a session with Sean Dietrich, aka Sean South. I don’t know anything about his book he’s publishing, “You Are My Sunshine: A Story of Love, Promises, and a Really Long Bike Ride”, but his videos are awesome. I would expect a high degree of booing from him and his book.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the possibilities. Readers with tastes different from mine – say, poetry – will chart a different route. And with around 200 authors, the biggest problem may be deciding which session to attend at any given time.

Did I mention there will be books for sale? Many, many, many books.

My advice: don’t be cheap.

Another thing: Although the in-person festival is back, COVID hasn’t gone away. I don’t know what the recommendation – if any – will be for wearing masks, but I plan to have one whenever I’m inside with a group of people. I would like to think that most book lovers feel the same way. But I’m not betting on it.

Joe Rogers is a former Tennessean writer and editor of The New York Times. He is retired and lives in Nashville.

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