In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris — attacks on Western civilization in the heart of Western civilization — and with CNN blaring on television screens everywhere, I happened to be attending the 32nd annual Miami Book Fair.
It was odd timing. Books, after all, are where you can find the whole of Western civilization, exactly the civilization that Islamic extremists want to destroy. So there was a fine irony in being surrounded by authors, publishers and readers just days after the Paris attacks.
Over 350 authors came to speak and hundreds of thousands of readers came to hear them. The fairgoers’ guide alone ran for 88 pages. There were special events and performances for children. There were cooking demonstrations. There was a Moth slam. There was a place to dance to Latin music. Many of the sessions were in Spanish.
This is the foremost book fair in the nation, and it takes over the Miami Dade College campus during the week before Thanksgiving. It was founded by the college and Mitchell Kaplan, founder and owner of Miami’s premier independent bookstore, Books & Books — a thriving store with branches in several parts of Miami and restaurants that serve a wicked good ceviche.
Some people say books are dead, but they appear to be wrong. I learned that approximately 400,000 books are published in the United States every year. Think about that number for a minute. That’s a lot of books. These are books on paper, on electronic devices, on the Internet, on audio recordings and on every other platform known to man today. Even though only 10 percent of commercially published books earn a full return on their investment, publishers are still happily publishing them. Western civilization happily marches on.
As a working journalist, I know a lot of writers. But nothing prepared me for the fervency of readers,
Readers turn out to be a special, special breed. They are corporal, real and devoted to books. They are hungry for books. They buy books. They collect books. They share books. They give homes to orphan books handed out by desperate authors during Miami rainstorms. They are eager to talk about books with each other and with the authors of books. This raises the level of intelligent conversation exponentially.
The very first evening, a friend and I heard poet Gary Snyder talk about living in the “wild land interface” — the place where the grid stops and the natural world begins.
Then he endeared himself to me by reading a poem that sent shivers of recognition down my spine. “Why I Take Good Care of my Macintosh”: “Because my mind flies into it through my fingers/Because its keys click like hail on a boulder/And it winks when it goes out.”
Snyder is an old man now, yet the audience’s questions, sadly, focused on his experience with the Beats in the late 1950s. I would have enjoyed hearing him wax philosophic on aging — a topic dear to my heart.
“We’re all wrestling with aging,” my friend commented. “Maybe he doesn’t know any more than we do.”
One of my new discoveries was the graphic novelist Leanne Shapton, a slender young woman with a giggly lightness of being that makes her instantly adorable. She was wearing vintage Halston and publicizing a book she co-edited called “Women in Clothes.”
The book is a well-organized compendium of 600 women’s thoughts on clothing, physical attractiveness and life as free women who can choose to wear whatever the hell they want. This is a topic that gives fundamentalists of all stripes — Christian as well as Islamic — well-deserved convulsions.
Clothing as a subject of study is not frivolous or anti-intellectual, Shapton insisted. “It’s a non-verbal language,” she said. There are always reasons why people dress the way they do. Some dress for the future. Some dress to compliment the people whose company they will soon be in. Some dress because a particular piece of clothing tells a personal story. The most interesting fact gathered from the survey responses? “Most women don’t hate their bodies.”
Although talk about terrorism dominated many of the discussions, the fair wasn’t all political. Many of the authors were celebrities. Both Kunal Nayyar of “The Big Bang Theory” and Jesse Eisenberg, who played Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” have wonderful books out this year. Nayyar, who is handsome and funny and charming in person (not at all like Raj, the shlub he plays on the show) wrote a handsome and funny and charming memoir about how he became famous. Eisenberg, who is fast-talking, brilliant and witty, wrote — you guessed it — a fast-talking, brilliant and witty novel.
Eric Bogosian, who played the chief on about 100 “Law & Order: Criminal Investigation,” wrote about vengeance after the Armenian genocide. Latino actor-directors Rosie Perez and John Leguizamo brought memoirs. Humorist P. J. O’Rourke was flogging his collected works.
But most of the author were not celebrities. They were intellectuals, poets, political analyzers, political operatives, artists, teachers, chefs, novelists, publishers, reviewers, historians and probably a few I’m leaving out. What they had in common was the ability to be fascinating.
A high point for me was a session in which the witty Pulitzer Prize winner and former poet laureate of the United States, Kay Ryan, discussed poetry with the current U.S. Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. It felt like a gift just to be in the room with them.
“There are too many fetters” in our civilization, they agreed. “Poetry is a free space.”
Herrera, a dapper guy in a red plaid shirt, a bushy mustache and a bright blue pork pie hat, writes his poems in a fluid English that he combines with a lyrical Spanish. He read part of a book-length poem he wrote about a Latino man’s danger-fraught 47-day migration from Honduras to the United States.
His character’s journey was marked by rape, murder, theft, hunger and sleeplessness — a harrowing journey that made for a harrowing poem. It was also describes the kind of trip that mirrors the one happening today.
Once I believed W. H. Auden when he wrote “But poetry makes nothing happen” (a lament he later disowned). Listening to Herrera describe this perilous journey made the demonizing of immigrants on CNN look like the tragic lie it really is. Herrera made me feel the pain and fear of these immigrants. And once you feel it, you cannot support the closing of U.S. borders to these fragile, desperate, brave men and women who will ultimately add so much to our society.
One of the most interesting speakers at the fair was former New York Times war correspondent, author and revolutionary Chris Hedges. He came to warn about “the corporate coup d’tat in slow motion” that has happened in America, resulting in the “disemboweling of the liberal class.”
Hedges blames Bill Clinton for deliberately moving the Democratic Party into the Republican camp and moving the Republicans “so far right that they went insane.”
Now we have a country that, by spying on its own citizens, criminalizing whole groups of people (blacks, gays, immigrants, etc.) in order to strip them of their rights, corporatizing culture and corrupting the political process, has made the life of ordinary Americans so difficult that they indulge in “magical thinking that leaves us unable to cope with a reality-based world,” he said. (A description that might bring joy to the hearts of Islamic fundamentalists.)
Hedges claims that the “inevitable” next Islamic fascist attack on American soil will turn us into an overt police state where our already overarmed police are “empowered to judge and effect punishment.”
“When you brutalize people you get brutal people,” he said, reminding us both of Paris and Ferguson.
Finally, at a seminar about independent publishing, it all came together.
First, Helen Atwan, the director of the Beacon Press, cheered me when she said, “We publish books because we think the author has something to say. It’s not about books making money.”
And Oren Teicher, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association, brought more good news. He said there was a resurgence in independent book stores, with millions of consumers making the decision to buy books there — whether it be books on paper, on Kindles and other electronic devices or on tape.
The localvore movement contributes to this, he said. People want a sense of place, a sense of locality, and having an independent book store in a community gives it an identity. More and more communities desire that. Hence, more and more independent book stores are popping up. That’s good news for readers, writers and also for Western civilization.
Our civilization uses language as an organizing tool. And organizing human experience is impossible without narrative. The book fair gave us part of the most recent collection of human experience (based on the bedrock values of Western Civilization) — those published in 2014-2015. And there are many more.
Hedges said that resistance to terrorism — both the kind represented by Muslim extremists and the kind represented by disenfranchised and over-armed Americans — is a moral imperative.
“Resistance allows you to become who you are,” he said. “I don’t fight because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.”
Based on what I saw at the book fair, Western civilization is alive, well and ready for the fight.
(This piece first appeared in The Commons, the weekly newspaper of Brattleboro, Vt., on December 16, 2015)