Book Fair proves a treat in city that claims to read

September 30, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

I WENT TO the book festival Saturday because I'm a book junkie and because it seemed like a good idea, at least until it started to rain.

If you don't think about it too hard, a book festival downtown makes perfect sense. Baltimore, a city that lives to do fairs, was looking for a new excuse to bring people into the city.

And Baltimore is, as we all know, the city that reads.

We all know this because we've all seen the slogan on the backs of park benches and, occasionally, on the sides of slow-moving city buses.

That's the beauty of sloganeering. Slogans don't have to be based in any fact or even mean anything. (My favorite is "There's only one 'JZ," meaning: I have no idea.)

And so, Baltimore calls itself the city that reads, which would be OK if it weren't so, well, Orwellian.

If you want to be technical about it, Baltimore is, of course, the city that closes libraries.

Baltimore is the city that reads unless you need to get to the Pratt's main branch on a Friday when it's closed. Which is, or should be, the shame of the city.

You can't find a decent bookstore in any of the shiny downtown buildings. And the city schools, where reading is presumably taught, continue to be in disarray.

Yeah, I was skeptical.

I was even more skeptical when I read the stories in advance of the festival. The organizers wanted to assure the citizenry that the festival wouldn't be -- God forbid -- a 'highbrow event" and would be fun for those who were "not book lovers" or even book likers.

There would be plenty to do, however.

There would be face painting and storytelling and bands playing and food cooking.

I went anyway, mainly because the wondrous Stephen Dixon would be reading and I hoped to meet him. If you've never heard of Dixon, don't worry. Nobody else has either. He's the best American writer nobody ever heard of.

The first thing I saw when I arrived at Mount Vernon Square was a cooking exhibition, hard by a booth offering cookbooks for sale. While I'm definitely in favor of eating, and don't even mind reading about it, I wasn't sure this is what a book fair should be about.

After passing a booth extolling the virtues of vegetarianism and one about making root beer and another about making bread, I finally found the computer tent where kids were going online. Some purists believe that reading on a computer is not really the same as reading on paper. These purists tend to be over the age of 40.

I was tempted by the literary tour of Baltimore, which took you to sites frequented by Fitzgerald and Poe and houses where Upton Sinclair and Gertrude Stein lived. Instead, I went to the tent housing local publishers and featuring some local authors.

There was quite a buzz. None of the buzz was about the books, though. Everyone I talked to was talking Orioles and playoffs and Robbie Alomar's expectoration technique and how a guy can turn from a hero into a bum in a single day. There's a book waiting to be written.

It was raining by this point, and the tents were getting crowded, which meant that there must be something like a crowd for the event, which has to be encouraging. My guess is that people who came weren't worried that it might be too "high-brow." Many of them were parents with children who thought that encouraging actual reading was a good thing.

I risked the rain to head over to the Walters Art Gallery to hear Dixon and other writers from the Hopkins writing seminar.

Dixon, who teaches at Hopkins, is a two-time finalist for the National Book Award. His last novel was called "Interstate," and his greatest work is a book called "Frog," which defies any easy description. That's probably the way Dixon likes it.

His stuff is decidedly and, possibly perversely, non-commercial.

"I've never been able to support myself with my writing," he was saying.

His friends say it's a point of pride for him.

He had left a short story he was completing to read one he'd written years before. I think it was called "Flying," and it was typically Dixonian. The smallish crowd gave him a nice hand, as it did for all the readers that day.

And beside me, one young man had a notebook of the kind he must have heard that writers carry to jot down their observations. During the readings, he went to his notebook several times, perhaps noting the felicity of a phrase or the insight behind one.

I don't know what the crowd count was or how many cookbooks they sold or how many faces were painted. But watching the would-be writer, I thought the book festival might have been a success.

Pub Date: 9/30/96

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