A literary pop-up store of massive proportions, the sixth annual Boston Book Festival took place this past weekend in the middle of Copley Square with a funky flare only Boston can provide. There were those that flocked to the individual publishing booths, spoken word performances and author panels with vigor, while others continued their Saturday shopping days on Newbury Street, distracted by the unusually warm October weather. However, the dichotomy is the beauty of Boston’s book weekend. Erected in the heart of Boston, the festival is permeable to the nuances of the city and feeds off of the energy of its people.
The Boston Book Festival stands as a testament to the cultural and educational opportunities that come with living in Boston. For Tufts students, it is an excuse to escape the dreariness of Tisch purgatory without abandoning all things educational. For professors, such as Peniel Joseph and Jan Swafford, faculty of Tufts’ History and English departments, respectively, who were both panel participants this year, it is a way for them to discuss the subjects to which they have devoted their lives. From the infantile to the elderly, book lovers rejoiced in Copley from Thursday evening to Saturday night.
Though visitors could peruse books of every genre, the festival is not overwhelmingly focused on the buying and selling of books. Instead it centers on the appreciation of literature in a cultural context that is uniquely Bostonian. Some folks lounged on the steps of the Boston Public Library, smoking less-than-legal substances and watching the bookworms scurry, while others had their eyes on a different scene: the food trucks on Dartmouth Street. An intersection of cuisine, entertainment and relaxation, the square served as a multidimensional sanctuary that appealed equally to those eager to socialize with other readers and to those more interested in a personal literary sojourn.
The “(Post) Modern Love Panel,” featuring New York Times columnist Daniel Jones, drew the bookworms of Boston to the pews of the Church of the First Covenant, perhaps seeking answers to their own questions about love, or perhaps the free candy and t-shirts. Jones discussed his recent book based upon the more than 50,000 submissions he has received in his nine years of being the Modern Love Editor. But despite this expertise, two other panel speakers were a tough act for Jones to follow.
One of these, author and activist Jennifer Finney Boylan, read from her humorous and poignant memoir “Stuck in the Middle with You” (2013), in which she discusses her experience as a trans woman, as a partner and more specifically as a parent. Boylan provided dynamism to the panel that gave voice to experiences often marginalized in mainstream literary discourse. Boylan’s unapologetically human account frequently moved the audience to both deep contemplation and to unrestrained laughter, filling the church with a palpable positivity. She reminded the audience of the importance of compassion on a human level, focusing not on romantic love but instead on the love found between and among all people.
Romantic love, however, was the topic of the talk from the next panelist, Margo Howard, a veteran advice columnist, author and four-time divorcé. “Never the bridesmaid, always the bride,” Howard focused in on her views of love as they existed at age 20, providing a snapshot into her life as a young woman. Her dating flops and sometimes blase attitude toward men were often funny and intensely relatable, even for listeners in their 20s today.
Again, Howard’s human experiences transcended gender, race and age. Giggling in tandem at punch lines, a sense of solace fell over the crowd, just knowing that the formidable, honest and hilarious woman of 74 speaking as an expert on love and writing was once a bumbling, questioning young woman lost in love.
Jones, who spoke last, only read part of the introduction to his book “Love Illuminated” (2014), and spent most of his allotted time praising the women on either side of him — both of whose essays he published in his column. He spoke honestly about how moved he is by reading so many people’s stories, and how fortunate he feels to be able to “now know enough about love to fill a book.”
Though the panel was secular, and at times even underlined its claims with humorous and profane implications and expletives seemingly inappropriate for a church setting, there was a profound cohesiveness among the audience that seemed fitting for its location. No one was praying, there was no talk of God or worship and yet a spirituality of love was alive in the pews. Just as some devote themselves to God, once a year on Saturday and Sunday, bookworms from all over the country gather to devote themselves to storytelling.
The power of the Boston Book Festival lies in its ability to bring people together through personal narrative and self-expression. The food trucks and book stands provide entertaining ways to spend a sunny Saturday, but any one of the countless keynotes, workshops, story hours, performances and panels connected people in a way that is markedly different than a standard street fair or campus-run event. This year’s Boston Book Festival brought the positive exchange of ideas and an inspirational day of self-discovery and discourse to Copley.