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Books Column: Get thee to an in-person book festival!

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

There’s nothing so restorative as sipping from the Dionysian cup of in-person book festivals, writes Ben Williams – while also worrying that the chance to enjoy them may be all too fleeting.

A quick review of recent events suggests that the urgency of attending an in-person book festival has never been higher. 

Both of Earth’s poles are cooking, at the same time. 

World War 3 grinds and squeals ever closer, like a tank on the horizon, this time freighted with nukes. 

Covid-19 dances darkly in the corners, fevered with ill-intention. 

South Africa pirouettes, as usual, on the edge.

Imagine spurning these grim realities for an hour, a few hours – a few days. Imagine a room filled with a soft, warm glow, and with a table at the end where glasses of red and white wine are lined up as though for a waltz. Imagine the rise and fall of indistinct speech, bubbling into peaks of laughter, dissipating into friendly antagonism.

Above all, imagine a gathering of sane minds – sane by any 21st-century measure, at least – whose purpose for congregating is to embrace a conversation about books. Imagine! 

It’s the grace of the quarter-hour before the book festival begins. There’s no feeling of flush like it. Imagine yourself there, amid a gaggle of readers and writers, faintly giddy at the prospect of strong opinions, flashes of wit, intellectual fireworks. In the sway of the moment, your own opinions dissolve and the world seems a dewy, freshly-licked thing. 

You need this feeling in your life again. And you can have it. Get thee to the friendly confines of an in-person book festival! The calendar has kicked back into life this year, and there are two coming up that present a real chance for you to sip, again, from Dionysus’s restorative cup. 

Later this month, the Open Book Festival in Cape Town bursts forth with several days of events – though best be quick, they’re selling out fast. Established in 2011, and with virtual offerings during Covid, it’s somewhat difficult to calculate exactly how many years Open Book has been running. Twelve? Ten? Time truly has thrown us for a loop. 

(A brief pause to remember and lament Open Book’s original main venue, the glorious Fugard Theatre, lost to Covid’s economic ravages. But the festival’s current venue, Bertha House in Mowbray, seems nothing if not an inviting, energising new home. Give thanks for its sturdy walls.) 

And then in May, the venerable Franschhoek Literary Festival – established in 2007, and renowned around the world for its village atmosphere – once again throws open its doors in the town centre after a two-year hiatus. 

Both literary programmes sizzle like hot type. Go! Get in! 

Book festivals are buzzing in the air everywhere, in fact, like bees in spring. My current perch in the high mountain desert of New Mexico, US, has just announced its first such event, taking place in late May. The inaugural Santa Fe Literary Festival will be headlined by Colson Whitehead. Will I be there? Do roadrunners dine on rattlesnakes under the hot sun? 

And yet, despite this resurgent energy, and the clear enthusiasm from literary punters of all stripes, one can’t seem to brush off a certain elegiac melancholy for the events that once were fixed anchor points on our annual pilgrimage through the months. Who knows how long book festivals, such oddly constructed social occasions, semi-miraculous to begin with, will truly last? One of the few remaining shelters from the savagery of our own species, ephemeral by their very nature, they seem as fragile as anything else plucked into the present day from our former world.

Hurry, savour them, reclaim them, before the window closes again. DM/ ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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