Another best-seller book festival
|Karen Kevorkian, a U.Va. lecturer in creative writing, works on letterpress printing at the Virginia Arts of the Book Center, recently set up in the Frank Ix Building, during an open house that was part of the book festival. At least 60 people of all ages came by March 19 to watch demonstrations, according to Johanna Drucker, a U.Va. professor of media studies who is on the center's board.
By Anne Bromley
“Reading changes lives, and we see it here every year,” said Robert Vaughan, director of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, as he launched the 11th annual book festival on March 16, sponsored by the foundation.
This year’s opening ceremony featured Mark Edmundson, Daniels Family NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at U.Va., who shared some stories from his latest books about how reading changed his life and that of others.
Edmundson, not interested in reading in high school, had a senior-year philosophy teacher who opened the world of literature to him. In his book, “Teacher,” Edmundson recounts how this teacher quietly challenged his students through the books he assigned to the class.
In his most recent book, “Why Read?” Edmundson said he discusses other well-known figures’ experiences with reading, too. Walt Whitman, for example, wasn’t so successful at the age of 33. Then he read Ralph Waldo Emerson, which “brought me to a boil,” Edmundson quoted. He said Emerson wanted to be the great American poet, but Whitman was the one who ended up being that poet. When he sent his self-published manuscript, “Leaves of Grass,” to Emerson, the man lauded the work, and Whitman promptly printed the endorsement on the next copies of his book. Is there any better story about the confluence of reading and writing? Edmundson asked with a grin.
Lectures and panels throughout the five days delved into various genres and topics related to reading, writing and publishing.
The festival’s program director, Nancy Coble Damon, said she has had a lot of verbal positive feedback, but it’ll take a little longer to sift through the hand-written evaluations. Some people made a point of telling her every program they went to was good.
This year, festival organizers scaled back the number of events slightly, and still probably brought in more people than last year, she said. The total 2004 audience surpassed 20,000, according to the final estimate. Over the past several years, they’ve tried to make it more manageable for attendees to select programs and yet ensure the locations were of appropriate size, always a bit of a guessing game.
Damon mentioned that this idea — that people have more difficulty making decisions with too many choices — is one explored by Malcolm Gladwell, one of the headline speakers this year.
Gladwell, author of the best-selling “Blink,” a book about the snap decisions everyone makes in the “blink” of an eye, described the consequences of such decision-making. In one example, he said the medical profession found that doctors could get too much information about patients with chest pain and have a hard time making a diagnosis. When fewer symptoms in a pattern were identified, it made it easier for doctors to more quickly make a more accurate diagnosis of heart attack.
Gladwell, who packed the 480-seat Darden Auditorium, with a few hundred people watching him by video, said, “There’s a whole world below the surface of what look like snap judgments.”
In seeking to understand the mind’s working in this subconscious realm, Gladwell said changing the environment or context in which someone has to make quick decisions can improve the decision-making process. He told the story of a female trombone player who tried out for the Munich Philharmonic Symphony about 25 years ago. At the time, he said, it was thought that men were better musicians than women, and there was only a small percentage of women playing professionally in orchestras.
The day Abbe Conant auditioned, screens to hide the musicians were being used because someone’s relative was trying out. Lo and behold, the maestro judges, whom Gladwell said he was surprised to discover made their assessments within minutes, chose Abby. Not long after that, a musicians’ union in London requested the screens be used all the time, and then women were regularly hired.
“It was a case of the evidence from their eyes getting in the way of the evidence from their ears,” he said.
Not every context would be that easy to change, but Gladwell said it’s worth thinking about and might enable people to make fairer decisions about others.
Overall, “almost all the events were better attended than we expected” Damon said of the 2005 book festival. Most of the participants were “very excited about their audiences.” And that’s a satisfying ending.