By AUSTIN HOPKINS For The News-Letter
Overcast skies with the occasional sprinkle didn’t dampen the Baltimore Book Festival’s 20th anniversary. Located at the Inner Harbor for its second year, the three-day event drew tens of thousands of book lovers last weekend to see hundreds of authors, poets and artists. Admission was free but there was plenty of interesting literature for any book lover to buy.
Occupying the section of the Inner Harbor from the USS Constellation all the way to the American Visionary Art Museum, the festival was truly massive. It should be no surprise then that there was something for everyone — from the family-friendly kid’s zone to the not-so-family-friendly panels hosted by romance and erotica writers.
Just wandering around the area, one could see hundreds of stands set up by a wide variety of people. As might be expected, most of these are literary in nature: authors signed books and discussed their works, local and outlet booksellers displayed merchandise, and writers’ communities offered memberships.
However there were representatives even from nontraditional literary sources, including the Walters Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the National Aquarium and even the Mayor’s office. Though most of the focus was obviously on books, that focus was not exclusive.
There were representatives from every possible genre — science fiction, fantasy, romance and comic books. Nonfiction lovers were also pleased with the array of personal essays, how-to books and cook books on display. One of the best parts was that attendees were not just surrounded by avid fans of every genre but sometimes also by the authors themselves.
There were other activities besides the vendors. Kids could get their faces painted, play reading games or meet favorite characters like The Cat in the Hat, Clifford the Big Red Dog and Curious George, all of whom — not coincidentally — have a significant relation to books rather than television. Words with Strangers, a giant Scrabble board where guests could collaboratively play other guests, was another fun way for attendees to mingle at the Book Festival.
Throughout the festival there were dozens of panels running simultaneously, featuring mostly local authors and members of the literary community. Some were focused on giving insight from authors to readers and fans, like the discussion on the role of science in science fiction and fantasy works, in which authors talked about how they research the real world to inspire the worlds they create.
Others were primarily focused on advice for any aspiring writers who might be present, like the discussion on Literary Citizenship from the editors of The Baltimore Review. They covered topics like the importance of reading the works of contemporaries, how to create effective critique groups, how to productively use arrogance and how to engage in Baltimore’s thriving community of writers. Many combined both of those approaches, allowing them to appeal to a wide audience.
Though these panels were set in arrangements dubbed “stages,” that was perhaps a misnomer. The panelists were on the same level as the audience. Each panel sat only a few dozen audience members, which were more than enough in most cases, so the environment was quite intimate.
Many panels encouraged active audience participation, and panelists were usually available to talk to afterwards. One downside of the panel structure was that they were scheduled back-to-back within a couple of minutes of each other, and since the event is so spread out you might’ve missed the end or beginning of one if you wanted to attend back-to-back panels at different stages.
There was plenty of food, albeit slightly overpriced. Though boxed water may be good for the environment, at $3.00 each it was expensive. Fortunately it wasn’t a hot weekend. Aside from the Inner Harbor restaurants, there were more than enough additional food vendors. The Food for Thought Stage gave live demonstrations of recipes and other food-related talks.
If you didn’t have a passion for books, there were also ancillary happenings related to music and visual art, but that probably wasn’t enough to justify going. However if you would like to spend a weekend at the Inner Harbor immersed in literature so that you can hardly walk a few yards without hearing a writer reading their work or talking about their craft, then you should definitely consider attending next year’s festival.