Last month I was lucky enough to appear at two book festivals. One of them, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, is indisputably the world’s largest and this year was its best year ever, with a record 225,000 visits to Charlotte Square over the 17 days of the event. The other was probably not the world’s smallest, but it was small – a one-day, 40-event mini festival at Sigtuna near Stockholm. It was Sigtuna’s very first and it drew over a thousand visitors.
There’s an insatiable appetite for book festivals these days. I can’t verify the figure but I seem to recall hearing some time ago that there were 200-plus in the UK. It certainly seems possible. Every small town worth its name now has some kind of annual celebration of books and writing.
But why? What is it about hearing writers talk about their books that draws people in such large numbers? What do they get at book festivals that they don’t get elsewhere? Well, celebrity contact is part of it. Being in the presence of a favourite author, often quite intimately, hearing them speak and having your book signed by them afterwards, can be very exciting. But I think in most cases that’s only a small part of it.
Every year in Edinburgh I feel the exhilaration that comes from being exposed to new ideas, especially when they’re thoughtfully and elegantly articulated – and every year I hear that experience echoed in the conversations around me. We have a great thirst for ‘content’ as the distributors of everything we consume with our minds now so casually call it. And where else do you get it, fresh and immediate, straight from the horses’ mouths, unfiltered by editors, but at book festivals?
Book festivals are increasingly becoming a modern version of the Roman Forum, the centre of public life. That’s why we love them – because they connect us to the heart of things in a way that nothing else does. Book festivals today are where we go to hear the great issues of the moment being debated in our presence by people who are articulate, informed and passionate. It doesn’t happen much on television and it doesn’t happen at all in Parliament. Of course there are plenty of organisations that stage excellent lectures and lecture series, but only festivals offer that concentration of events, that range of subjects, and the almost febrile atmosphere that comes with them.
Some time ago The Scotsman wrote that if you really want to know what’s going on in Scotland and Scottish politics, you should go not to Holyrood but to Charlotte Square. It’s a sentiment that could be applied equally to the thousand provincial libraries, town halls, civic theatres and bookshops that now host book festival events around the country. And of course it’s not only local politics you’ll hear debated. Whatever people write books about, from global warming to the Arab spring, genetic engineering to mountaineering, fiction to fashion, these subjects will be discussed.
It takes more than knowledge and a facility with words to write a book. It takes conviction and passion and determination. And I believe we love book festivals because they are places where all that is brought together, where head and heart are joined and given equal prominence.
That balance will certainly be part of our mantra next week when we make our annual Dark Angels pilgrimage to Andalucia. There we play our small part in bringing new perspectives to a world where, when it comes to the written word, head is so often and so misguidedly promoted to the exclusion of heart.
Last week’s elephant story is now concluded under Travel Tales…