Virginia Festival of the Book Rooted in a Community of Rich Culture

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For two centuries, Charlottesville, Virginia, has drawn men and women of letters to live in its cultured environs: from Thomas Jefferson (whose Monticello is three miles east of the city) to current residents John Grisham, Rita Mae Brown, and National Book Award-winner John Casey.

And for the past several years, Charlottesville's annual Virginia Festival of the Book has attracted thousands of visitors to a five-day menu of some 150 literary panels, talks, and readings staged in venues all around town.

The dozens of options offered the estimated 15,000 attendees at last week's eighth VABook! ranged from a luncheon talk by Marie Arana (American Chica) (broadcast later on Central Virginia's PBS station WVPT), to a panel titled Can I Write This? Threats to Free Speech (shown live on C-SPAN2's Book TV), to a day of seminars on publishing with a panel of experts that included Jason Epstein, to a discussion of work and wages with Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) and Ben Cheever (Selling Ben Cheever), to a Saturday "Crime Wave!" of events with mystery and thriller writers (including Jeffery Deaver, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, Anne Perry, Elizabeth Peters, and Jan Burke).

The assortment of nearly 100 staging areas was equally eclectic: from the University of Virginia Rotunda, to several downtown bookstores, to the Central Library, to a cooking store.

"By having it at a variety of venues, we can do more programming," said Jane Goodman, who handled publicity for the festival. "And you get people buzzing about it all over town: because this is a small town, and you can walk or easily get around to the sites on buses. It's as if the whole town, every nook and cranny, has something going on. I think that's what makes it festive, in its way." Goodman noted that one of the major goals of the festival is to put "a lot of people into contact with each other, and people really have the opportunity to see Charlottesville."

It's a city worth seeing, said Dave Taylor, co-proprietor of Read It Again, Sam, a used book shop on the historic Downtown Mall: "It has European charm. There are a lot of writers here, a lot of artists. The fact that on the Downtown Mall there are eight bookstores and 30 restaurants is an indicator of the type of town it is. A lot of readers, a lot of interesting characters."

Charlottesville being the site of the University of Virginia plays a huge part in the town's cultural scene, Taylor said, adding: "So many students love the area so much that they graduate from school with a law degree and end up working at a used bookstore for six dollars an hour."

All Charlottesville independent bookstores help support the Festival through contributions or advertising, said Taylor, whose store's sales were "way up" during the event, despite his shop not being a venue site ("We discovered last year we just didn't have the room"). This year, he reported that "we had a lot of people in from the Carolinas, from Maryland, D.C. There were just a lot more people in town and generally, if they're book people, they gravitate towards the bookstores."

Wes Hubbard, manager at Blue Whale Books, another used book store on the Mall, which hosted a Festival rare-book appraisal clinic co-led by Dave Taylor, echoed Taylor's assessment: "I think the number of customers in the shop was considerably higher than you would ordinarily expect in March. This was a very good weekend," he said.

"The events occurring in our store did very, very well," said Wayne Terwilliger, general books manager of the University of Virginia Bookstore, site of some one dozen Festival programs, "better, I think, than in any of the previous years."

The New Dominion Bookshop, "the oldest independent bookseller in Virginia" (founded in the early 1920s) and Charlottesville's only independent selling new trade titles, was the site of several Festival activities, said owner Carol Troxell: "We had events every day; we had very good attendance; we had interesting authors. I think the response was very good."

Among the events New Dominion sponsored were "Humor Me: A Discussion of Witty Writing"; and a talk by Gary Kessler, author of "Downtown on the Mall," a work about Charlottesville's historic walkway.

"This is definitely an arts community," said Troxell. "Not only do we have a lot of local authors, but I think the culture fosters writing. There are writer workshops and community writer groups, and the University of Virginia English department is very strong and has a terrific creative writing program. There is also a lot of music in town, and a lot of theater groups. It's very rich culturally, I think."

And, given its historic associations, very serious about matters of free expression.

One of the festival's most stimulating events was the "Can I Write This?" panel, with authors Marjorie Heins (Not in Front of the Children) and Robert M. O'Neil (The First Amendment and Civil Liability), who is also director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, which sponsored the discussion.

"The speakers are, I think, two of the nation's foremost authorities on free-speech issues," said panel moderator Josh Wheeler, associate director of the Thomas Jefferson Center.

"Marjorie Heims's book is an exhaustive examination of laws that have been passed over time with the purpose of protecting minors from harmful material. She dealt quite a bit with the so-called 'scientific proof' that there is a causal connection, for example, between seeing violent material and entertainment and then that causing violent behavior on the part of children. She, I think, rather effectively demonstrates that there is, in fact, no credible evidence to show that there is that causal effect. And the same for harmful effects to minors in terms of viewing sexually explicit materials," said Wheeler. Noting that Heims did not advocate that "that kids should be looking at this material," Wheeler said that Heims "just said there's no credible evidence that there's a scientific basis for this kind of thing; that you really need to look to other factors to determine when there's going to be harm."

O'Neil approached the topic of free speech from a different angle, said Wheeler: "Typically when we think of the First Amendment we think of some sort of government effort to censor or regulate our speech." Instead, O’Neil focused on a growing trend of "using civil liability -- when people just sue one another as a tool to, in fact, censor the expression of others," said Wheeler.

This serious Saturday morning discussion drew thoughtful questions from those in attendance, said Wheeler. "One good question that we hadn't dealt with specifically was addressed to free speech in the wake of 9/11," Wheeler said. "Our respondents said there were obviously some short-term things that were disturbing but were probably just initial emotional reactions; but there are some other, longer-term concerns we do have, like the Patriot Act, which allows for much greater information-gathering on the part of the Federal government, perhaps in terms of listening in on what are supposed to be private communications of people." [For more on the Patriot Act, click here. For more on a BEA panel on free expression in times of crisis, co-sponsored by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), the Association of American Publishers, and the Freedom to Read Foundation, click here.] -- Tom Nolan