Brooklyn Book Festival Recap: From Robert Silvers to Lupe Fiasco

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In many respects, the Brooklyn Book Festival is the literary equivalent of the nearby Fulton Street Mall. Think zine vendors instead of sneaker stores, assume a comparably sized weekend crowd (albeit in larger numbers of ironic glasses), and you begin to get an idea of the mob that descends on the borough’s annual lit fair.

Now in its fourth year, the event continued its sprawl through Borough Hall this weekend, packing the plaza with its respective wares (Kabbalah literature, anyone?) and extending into the surrounding government buildings. This year, the Festival really outdid itself, scheduling 97 events and 220 authors into a seven-hour Sunday block.

The knockout event of the morning was a panel entitled Poetry, Pop, and Hip-Hop, which invited musicians to discuss the relationship between language and sound. Panelists included Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore (who has made some kind of Wildean pact with the devil in order to look 25 forever), poets Tracie Morris and Matthew Zapruder, and rapper Lupe Fiasco, who came equipped with his own front-row cheering section. The panel touched on the divide between hip-hop and academic poetry – “it’s inexcusable to talk about poetry like it’s always been on a page,” Morris remarked – and was a good example of the Festival’s willingness to entertain other forms of expression as literary. While the timeframe didn’t lend itself to deep analysis, the conversation never flagged – at one point the panelists devolved into a communal bashing of Harold Bloom – and anyways, one or two good Thurston Moore anecdotes is always well worth an hour.

If Poetry, Pop, and Hip-Hop reflected the Festival’s younger and more freeform ambitions, the NYRB-sponsored afternoon panel on friendship rolled out the old-school literary heavyweights. The event featured several Review regulars – Oliver Sachs on Francis Crick, Darryl Pinckney on Djuna Barnes, and Anita Desai on her mentor, Ruth Jhabvala – and had the panelists reading excerpts of previously published work. Pinckney reflected on the size of Barnes’ apartment and her sage advice (don’t get old, married, or write) and Sachs recounted the feverish intelligence of geneticist Francis Crick. Cultural and intellectual inheritance seemed to be the themes of the day, and while references ranged from Ghostface to Joyce, everybody appeared to be having a good time. As an added bonus, by Sunday’s end, the Brooklyn Book Festival had the distinction of being the only venue in the world to ever feature both Robert Silvers and Lupe Fiasco on the same day.

Photos courtesy of Alan Parker

Back in the plaza, author signings were scheduled throughout the afternoon, with the one-man-PR-machine of Tao Lin signing books at the Melville House stand, and the incomparable Wallace Shawn autographing his new essay collection down the walkway. The magazines and small presses were out in force, and spared from last year’s heat wave, it proved a good day to be outdoors. Ultimately, between the events and the vendors, the Brooklyn Book Festival is unquestionably among the city’s best literary fairs; a fact bolstered by its size, scope, and ability to achieve the impossible and draw Manhattanites across the river. If the Festival continues to grow at its current pace, however, the borough should split it into a two-day event, or risk the wrath of fans unable to take advantage of the fair’s already overbooked lineup. Regardless, to steal a line from flamboyant borough president Marty Markowitz, “Now more than ever before, Brooklyn is Booklyn.”