This last weekend I was totally excited to fly out of a record-breaking desert heatwave in Arizona, and attend the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, California. Big names and small presses came together, shutting down the streets of Downtown Berkeley and gathering around the world’s largest free library. It was a book lover’s dream.
I went into the festival getting a bit of a cold, which I assume the dramatic climate change didn’t help, and was pretty bummed to feel like I was dying through such an incredible experience. I toughed it out though, and attended every panel I planned on, except one, crashing early in the first evening with a nasty cough.
The festival started off with a performance by poet, musician, and slam-master Saul Williams featuring local spoken-word artist Chinaka Hodge avant-garde jazz musicians Black Spirituals. As this had been sold out for months, I wasn’t sure I was going to get in, but I scored a ticket at the last minute.
I caught the end of Hodge’s performance, which was breathtaking and made me regret walking in late. Williams jammed with the Black Spirituals, free-associating poetry out of his new collection as they jammed on the drums and a bass plugged into several synthesizers. One of the best, and worst, things about Saul Williams is his multi-faceted performance ability. You don’t know which Saul you will get when you show up to see him. As someone who loves the fast-flowing percussive alliteration of spoken word, this more chilled out performance wasn’t my favorite.
That’s okay though, I still love Saul, and found a new name to look out for in Chinaka Hodge. I picked up two books as I walked out of the performance: Saul Williams’ new collection, US(a.) and Chinaka Hodge’s Dated Emcees.
For the actual festival, I went real big and packed my lineup. One of the best panels I heard was the first I attended, Subversive Speculative Fiction, hosted by the always brilliant Charlie Jane Anders.
Although I hadn’t heard of many of the authors speaking, I had jotted down each of their books by the end of the talk and I’m looking forward to reading their work. Most notably Johanna Sinisalo and Ayize Jama-Everett were both hilarious while questioning the status quo of science fiction in simple but profound ways.
Another of the greatest panels I saw featured Jonathan Lethem and Dana Spiotta nerding out about society, technology, and writing like two old friends staying up way too late and analyzing the world in all the most interesting ways. This is the sort of stuff I love to hear, the strange ways smart people think. From Spiotta researching the sound and touch of 1970’s telephone technology, to Lethem’s thoughts on the way the simultaneous experience has devolved through technology like Netflix, this was all the stuff I love to think about. Lethem has been one of my favorite authors for quite a while now, and although I haven’t checked out Spiotta’s work, I am definitely going to do so in the future.
There was quite a bit more. Most notably, a panel with Adam Johnson, and another with the editors of the Voice of Witness books, which amplify the voices of those subject to human rights abuses around the world. Powerful stuff.
If you didn’t make it to Berkeley for this year’s Bay Area Book Festival, start planning now to make it out next year (it will be June 3rd and 4th, 2017).