Iowa City Book Festival
Celebrating its first decade, the Iowa City Book Festival (Oct. 1-7, 2018) will provide the first of two UNESCO Cities of Literature in the U.S. with a wide slate of authors and activities — many of which expand the sense of what “book” even means. Literature, of course, has never been bound to books — but books have become increasingly unbound through various iterations and innovations.
This year, in keeping with the technological possibilities that have transformed the notion of a “book” from pages in binding to images on a screen, the Book Festival will celebrate the 200th birthday of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with a host of activities. In addition to a public reading of the novel on Oct. 3, audiences will be treated to a conversation with Corey Creekmur, professor of cinema at the University of Iowa, before Film Scene’s screenings of the cinematic treasures Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein (Young Frankenstein shows later in the week).
Other conversations about Frankenstein include a discussion of the books stitched into the story, featuring members of the UI English faculty, and a space in special collections showing off some of the relics associated with the book’s genesis. Other monster moments that expand on the sense of “book” includes a live taping of the deservedly popular Welcome to Night Vale podcast.
John Kenyon, director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature and organizer of the Book Festival, appreciates these developments. When I spoke with him as he was finalizing preparations for the festival, he commented: “…a ‘book’ is long form storytelling. If someone puts one between hardbound covers, it doesn’t make it better or worse than sitting around a campfire. There are benefits —
portability, digital files — but there’s also something to be said about storytelling in shows like Night Vale: If you’re there, that night, it is unique.”
He continued, discussing how “book” should include other forms of longform journalism beyond podcasts: “That’s the value of the internet, the fact that there are many longform websites and we see really good longform journalism beyond the New Yorker. The longform journalism of podcasts — what we’ve lacked since serial radio — the best podcasts are called novelistic because of this approach. There’s a complex story that unfolds over time that relies on people listening over a long period of time, the way you do with a doorstop novel. It may seem strange to have a podcast as part of a book festival, but it’s still stories.”
Even after two centuries, Frankenstein remains the definitive cultural ur-text depicting how humans are haunted by well-intentioned creations that they abandoned in horror. This extends to our understanding of the political system stitched together as part of the well-intentioned American experiment: Like the creature, America was sparked to life and can behave with both noble generosity and horrifying violence. The 2018 Book Festival also features four authors whose books open different ways of understanding this curious dynamic through an engaged, longform journalism.
At 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 5, in Meeting Room A of the Iowa City Public Library, the League of Women Voters will partner with the UNESCO City of Literature to present Ari Berman, the author of Give us the Ballot. Berman’s work seems increasingly important given both the consequences of gerrymandered districts and the close nature of political contests. Because Johnson County is a pretty privileged place to vote — most people are close to polling places, wait times are often short and absentee voting is encouraged — it is easy to forget the ways that the vote is threatened in other regions of the country through the restriction on polling places (geographically or temporally). Berman will offer ways to consider how interested citizens can help people vote in other communities and provide ways to think through the kinds of arguments that people make about restrictions. This event will be moderated by a member of the LWV and will also feature voter registration, ahead of the November election.
Saturday’s slate in Meeting Room A of the Library features three more authors of books that examine the political dimension of what it means to be an American in the 21st century. Silvia Hildago will read from her field guide How to be an American at 1 p.m. Inspired by Hildago’s frustration with the official documents offered to her as she studied to become a citizen, the book provides a guide to the complex body of knowledge that immigrants are required to master before becoming a citizen. Beyond immigrants, Kenyon thinks that the book is a good resource for patriots who believe they know about the country and a good general refresher of what we ask of those who would become citizens. Kenyon hopes that it will provoke a good conversation in the community.
Dan Kaufman, author of The Fall of Wisconsin, was one of Kenyon’s first picks for the festival this year, and he will appear at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday. The book looks at the consequences of Scott Walker’s rule in Wisconsin, but contextualizes it in terms of a deep historical study of Wisconsin’s role in progressive politics. This allows Kaufman to relate Walker’s desire to dismantle unions to the history of how they emerged in the Midwest and how debates over the environment have evolved from the initiation of environmental movements, to those who fought against it, why people bought into it, and why, perhaps, the battle is being waged again. Overall, the book provides tools for those who favor the kinds of changes wrought in Kansas and Wisconsin as well as for progressives who desire a different path. The kinds of massive change engineered in these Midwestern states seem to be part of how the Iowa political landscape is changing.
Finally, Kenyon says that he’s “very pleased” to have Art Cullen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and editor from Storm Lake, Iowa, come to speak about his book, Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper. Cullen will appear at 11:30 a.m. The book provides a complementary perspective on ways that the state has changed from being based on small farms worked by white men and women to a system driven by corporations and worked by immigrants.
Whereas Kaufman focuses on how corporations change places, Cullen looks at how they impacts people. Kenyon marveled at how reading the book caused him to read “…about my state in ways that betray the ignorance I’ve had about anything more than 50 miles from where I am.”
Overall, Kenyon hopes that this year will allow audience members to gain “…a better appreciation, a new understanding of an established author” or “find a new favorite author or favorite book.”
Kenyon continues, “You can look at a book festival as being passivebut we want it to be interactive, to have discussions and ideas implanted that cause [audiences] to think about the world a bit differently. We want to pick up in the middle of conversations that are ongoing in the community and to use the presentations to move to a new place in those.”
With this combination of authors and events, the tenth year of the Iowa City Book Festival seems well positioned to be exactly that.