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The best Miami Book Fair ever? Maybe so, maybe so…

November 22, 2010

Patti Smith: Peak experience.

George Bush defended waterboarding to thunderous applause. Pat Conroy spoke for an hour without notes. Patti Smith made Mitch Kaplan cry with an a cappella rendition of “Because the Night.” And I stepped on Dave Eggers’ foot in front of 800 people and the cameras of C-Span. Was this the greatest Miami Book Fair ever, or what?

Indeed it was. The let-down that always follows the sustained literary high of the book fair is sharper than usual this year. Aw, Ma: You mean it’s over?

The 27th edition of the Miami Book Fair certainly featured the greatest single moment in the fair’s distinguished history. It came at the end of Smith’s guileless appearance Friday night in support of her National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids.

Smith, who appears to be 65 going on 17, had spoken at length about moving to New York as a restless teen in 1967, her romance with Robert Mapplethorpe, another scrounging would-be artist, and all the people they met in that earlier, simpler time. Best anecdote: Allen Ginsberg tried to pick up Smith at the automat — he mistook her for a boy.

At the end Smith told the story of how she came to co-write “Because the Night,” her one hit single, with Bruce Springsteen. And then she sang the song without accompaniment — apart from the voices of the enraptured audience, who joined in with increasing force.

As Kaplan, co-founder of the fair, mounted the stage, he wasn’t the only one wiping away tears. It was a transcendent group experience, the peak event in fair history — which is saying a lot when you consider that history includes appearances by James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Allen Ginsberg, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tom Wolf, Orhan Pamuk, Ariana Huffington when she was still a conservative and Barack Obama when he was still just a first-term Senator from Illinois.

Other highlights I witnessed with my own two eyes: Pat Conroy eschewed reading his latest book, a celebratory volume entiteld My Reading Life, opting instead to tell stories, mostly about his famously dysfunctional family. He was hilarious and, yes, poignant, earning a standing ovation at the end.

John Waters reminisced about his career as an outsider filmmaker with great humor, too, but the thing that came through strongest was his warm humanity.

Robert Goolrick spoke at length about his bestselling memoir, The End of the World as We Know It, and the horrifying story of being raped by his drunken father when he was four years old. He was neither callous nor self-pitying, and he held the audience rapt with the elegance of his writing and his speech.

My personal highlight/lowlight: Asked to introduce author and publishing phenom Dave Eggers, I waxed pompous about how Eggers is our Johnson and our Boswell, and on and on for some time. After a final rhetorical flourish (“our Henry Fielding and our Upton Sinclair!”), I gave the stage to Eggers, who shook my hand on his way to the podium and leaned in to say thanks beneath the heady roar of applause.

That’s when I stepped on his foot.

With more than 30o writers on hand, no one could see everything, and I confess I missed some writers I really wanted to catch, including Salman Rushdie, Laurie Halse Anderson, Jennifer Egan, Walter Mosley, Christopher McDougall, Michelle Norris, Jaime Hernandez, Sebastian Junger, Ian Frazier and Lynda Barry.

And, alas, I had longstanding travel plans that cost me the entirety of Sunday’s line-up, which meant I missed, among others, Dennis Kitchen, Michael Cunningham, David Grann, Hari Kunzru, Ron Chernow, Simon Winchester, Joe Sacco, Lev Grossman, and, closing out the fair, some guy named Jonathan Franzen.

If anyone caught any of the events I missed, please let us know how they were.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    November 22, 2010 1:42 pm

    I’m jealous. We just don’t have access to that caliber of art and literature in rural SW Virginia. But I can sure show you some quality bluegrass and old time music.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 22, 2010 3:08 pm

      That sounds like a fair exchange.

  2. November 22, 2010 9:30 pm

    What I love is the upbeat tone and the sound of delight in all these blogs to us, Chauncey. You sure make me wish I could have somehow been there to enjoy the grand times with you. Thanks much for sharing everythig so eloquently. You the Man!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 23, 2010 12:45 am

      Thanks, Duff. Really, the Miami Book Fair is to me now what Christmas was to me as a child. And it’s the opening of the Season. Next up: The Key West Literary Seminar, the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, and the Night of LIterary Feasts at the Broward County Library, all first-rate events featuring writers of the highest rank. Just not as many as at the book fair. I’m very fortunate to live in South Florida.

  3. November 28, 2010 11:07 pm

    Yes, thank you for sharing. I’ve had a great time although I’m a couple thousand miles away.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 29, 2010 6:09 pm

    Ah, Liane. Too kind, too kind. Please don’t stop.

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