Chapter 24
Heard at the Boston Book Festival 2012

Smaller than Austin's but up-and-coming

The Boston Book Festival takes place in late October at a number of venues in the Back Bay area of Boston in and around Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library. It is a celebration of books published in the last year. Authors come and talk to potential readers about their books, or maybe generally about their topics. About 150 authors and ten or twenty thousand readers. One of the local underground papers, dig Boston, calls it "a one-day, all-encompassing literary orgy."

For the authors, this is probably part of the mandatory publicity tour that publishers send them on. For readers, it is a chance to hear about books and writers that they might not otherwise explore, or to hear more from writers they already know.

This festival is much the same format as the Texas Book Festival in Austin, but newer and smaller. The Texas festival goes for two days, takes over the state capitol, and hosts two hundred sessions. The Boston festival is growing every year, but is only one day long, borrows venues from the library and local churches and hotels, and hosts about sixty sessions. Not bad for an event only four years old.

The main problem with all such book festivals is that there are so many -- too many -- overlapping sessions, one can never get to all the interesting ones. Ms. T. and I generally go to different sessions, largely because we have different interests in reading material, but also to maximize our coverage. I typically `go for techie and artsy sessions; she for history, politics, and fiction.

20121027.1245 Serious Satire, Panel

Moderator: David Bernstein, The Boston Phoenix

Kevin Bleyer, author of Me the People

  • This session was held in the Trinity Church in Boston, a real, operating church one of the city's architectural landmarks. Discussing politics in such a place seems very inappropriate. "This is when satire becomes sacrilege."
  • The book is a reinterpretation/rewrite of the Constitution. "Everyone else is rewriting the Constitution these days. Why shouldn't I?"
  • In a survey last year, more teenagers in this country could name the Three Stooges than could name the three branches of government. The Three Stooges! Not even some contemporary comedy group.
  • It's not just kids who don't know what's in the Constitution. Recently, John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, third in line of succession for the presidency, was giving a speech. He waved his pocket copy of the Constitution and quoted it, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Or he thought he was quoting it. However, that is the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.
  • Story about the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia during the Revolution: When the British were about to overrun the city, it was feared that the British would melt down the bell along with any cannons they captured. To protect the bell, the citizens removed it and hid it -- in a pile of horse manure. "Sometimes to protect what you love, you have to sh*t on it."
  • Story about a lunch with Justice Scalia: Discussing possible changes to the Constitution, he started to talk about tenure for Supreme Court justices. Scalia interrupted him, gesturing pointedly with his fork, "Don't you dare get rid of lifetime tenure. Or if you do, grandfather me in. I like my job."
  • The Constitutional Convention was conducted in absolute secrecy. Participants did not discuss the deliberations even with their families. There were angry letters, which we still have in archives, from fathers and sons of delegates, berating them for not sharing any information. Part of the dysfunction of our political system today is that so much of the process is conducted in public, everyone posturing for the media, and this makes cooperation and compromise almost impossible.

Lizz Windstead, writer on The Daily Show, author of Lizz Free or Die

  • When she was a little girl, she went through the toy version of the indentured servitude that women live when they grow up. "Anything my mother was crying about -- the stove, the ironing board -- I got for Christmas presents."
  • "If a guy wears more than one piece of sports memorabilia, he won't go down on you."
  • At the beginning of the Iraq War in 2002, she saw people reacting to the news reports of the attacks as entertainment or as really cool video games. "This is awesome!" would be heard in sports bars when the CNN video images from Baghdad were on the giant flat screens. Remember those ghostly green pictures from the rooftops of tracer shells going up into the sky, buildings exploding? And soon after, the media and the public were consumed with the OJ chase. So when they started to discuss what became The Daily Show, she insisted that they report on the media coverage of stories in addition to the stories themselves.
  • Regarding Todd Akins's ludicrous assertion that "women's bodies can shut the whole thing down" in cases of "legitimate rape," Lizz thinks "If women could really do anything like that with their bodies, they'd turn your creepy sperm into ranch dressing."

Baratunde Thurston, head of The Onion digital edition, author of How to Be Black

  • "If you don't buy this book, you're a racist. It's been proven in the lab."
  • The book contains chapters on, for instance, how to be a black employee, how to be a black President, etc.
  • "The middle class? In America, even millionaires think of themselves as middle class. In this campaign, everyone in politics wants to help the middle class."
  • Having Democrats in power is a huge financial boon for the right. Book sales, subscriptions, and contributions go through the roof.

20121027.1430 The Brain: Thinking About Thinking, Panel

Moderator: Sacha Pfeiffer, WBUR

Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize 2000, author The Age of Insight

  • Modernism began as a reaction to the Enlightenment's uncritical belief in rationality.
  • Modern medicine, based on empirical evidence and not just ancient principles, began in the Vienna Hospital. The new head of Pathology, Carl von Rokitansky, autopsied every person who died in the hospital for decades, 60,000 autopsies in all. (Autopsy is the quality control mechanism for medical practice.) They carefully correlated physical examinations before death with autopsy results to understand how internal disease is manifested in symptoms.
  • Important principles are not obvious at first; you have to dig deep.
  • Klimt understood female sexuality better than Freud. It shows primarily in his drawings more than in his paintings, but look closely at the painting, Judith I.
  • Art is subjective. The Beholder sees art subjectively, creates the interpretation of the work in his mind, and therefore is as much a part of the work as the creator.

Ray Kurzweil, inventor, entrepreneur, author of How to Create a Mind

  • The neocortex is common to all mammals. In rats it is about the size and thickness of a postage stamp. In primates it is very convoluted, cramming more into a small space. In humans, it is about the area of a table napkin if stretched out, and about as thick, but it is 80% of the brain.
  • What is the neocortex for? It is used to predict the future, so that comparators can determine when something different, and therefore potentially dangerous, is happening.
  • There is exponential growth in information technology areas, e.g., Moore's Law, the human genome project, the internet, wireless traffic. The genome project, for instance was predicted by some people to take much longer than it did. Halfway through the fifteen year project, only 1% of the genome was sequenced. By linear extrapolation, that means it would take 700 years. But the rate of production was doubling every year (exponential growth), and so would be 128 times greater in seven more years. And in fact, that's what happened: it finished on time seven years later.
  • The brain has about 300 million pattern recognizers. The brain does pattern recognition well, but not logic. Computers do logic well. He wrote a paper on this when he was 14.
  • He predicted in the 80s that a computer would defeat the best human chess master by 1998. It actually happened in 1997. And people then dismissed chess as an important measure of intelligence, also as he predicted. Well, of course computers are better at this, because chess is a logical game and computers are logical, so. . . .

20121027.1615 The Future of Reading, Panel

Moderator: Sep Kamvar, MIT Media Lab

Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab, One Laptop Per Child

  • There is this spectrum of writing technologies from stone tablets to scrolls to printed books. "Digital" is not on that same spectrum, it is not just the next step. Digital is an underlying substrate, almost the DNA of reading for the future, regardless of the delivery medium.
  • All books have been digital for about forty years. Most printing has been input in digital form for computerized typesetters for decades.
  • A novel is only about a million bits of information. One picture from your digital camera is much larger.
  • Reading will have to change: you simply cannot send information on paper to the billion (!) new readers in the world.

Maryanne Wolf, Tufts U. Reading and Language Research, author Proust and the Squid

  • There is no single "reading brain." The organization of reading centers in the brain differs between languages.
  • Socrates: putting an idea into print gives it the illusion of truth. And that is dangerous.
  • Proust: the end of another's wisdom is the beginning of ours. We learn when we think about what we have read or heard.
  • How do we create the "biliterate brain" that can learn from multiple media.

Robert Darnton, Director Harvard U. Libraries

  • The first real historical change in reading occurred with the invention of the codex, i.e., the book with pages, in the middle ages. The change from scrolls to discrete pages with random access changed reading considerably.
  • Words were not spaced out in written form until the Middle Ages. Previously much was recorded to be spoken or as spoken.
  • Professors have begun to complain that they can no longer assign as reading novels by Henry James. Too many big words, too many long sentences, old syntax.

Cheryl Cramer, Senior VP Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

  • Reading changing in at least four ways.
  • Becoming boundless: pick your medium. Want printed paper, image, audio, video?
  • Becoming borderless: everyone has access to everything, worldwide. Anyone in any country can see anything in any other country.
  • Becoming personal: your choice of design, e.g., what fonts, what size, what media.
  • Becoming social: where is the "discovery" of books happening? How do people find out about new books that they might want to read? The New York Times Book Review section vs Twitter.
  • But compelling content never goes out of style.

Baratunde Thurston, head of The Onion digital edition, author of How to Be Black

  • He just published his book in dead tree form.
  • The book contains a lot of provocative questions posed to experts and to the readers. Some were not intended to be provocative but turned out that way, e.g., "Can you swim?" precipitated a discussion about access to public pools.
  • At the top of each page where the book title and chapter name would usually be found, this book has the Twitter hashtag.
  • The book was published with two different covers, some with black type on white background, some with white type on a black background. An instant psychological test.
  • As an experiment, he shared his screen out to the public while he was writing some chapters and editing others. The chat room that ran at the same time received many very strange comments, as though people thought they were actually involved in and could influence the process rather than just being observers.
  • The strangest email he got was from a guy who disliked something in the book and said, "I'm not going to finish your book." Well, duh, think it through, dude; you already bought the book. Do I care if you don't finish reading it?

Open discussion

  • Negroponte: Marshall McLuhan was correct when he said about television, "The Medium is the Message." But that is not true anymore.
  • Wolf: The consumption of words may be up, but comprehension and vocabulary and syntax are down.
  • Thurston: We have a remix-ability that was hard or impossible with physical books. People now can share passages, sentences, relate them to others.
  • Darnton: Coming democratization of content, of access to culture; a new project, The Digital Public Library of America. It should be called "of the World," of course. [Note that this was discussed in the Boston Public Library, which was the first public library in the United States.]
  • Cramer: Publishers still have a role in the future, but with new competencies needed for production. Need an editorial function, too. These are not fading away for professionally published material.
  • Thurston: And we still need promotion, publicity, distribution, getting authors on the book interview tour circuit. Authors still need to compete for the viewer's attention. Viewers have a choice of book vs youtube and such.
  • Darnton: There were 350,000 paperback books published last year. 700,000 other books were self-published online.
  • Thurston: Online publishing scales down in a way that books don't. You can write for a niche audience as small as you want. This is the ultimate in democratization.