On the weekend of April 11-13 I traveled to Manchester, Vermont for Booktopia 2014, a three-day celebration of books, reading, and all-around bibliophilia that I can’t recommend highly enough—-it was one of the real highlights of the tour for A Burnable Book. Now in its fourth year, Booktopia is the brainchild of Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness, who also host the popular podcast “Books on the Nightstand,” which you can find and download here. Each spring Ann and Michael bring six or seven authors and hundreds of book lovers to several locations around the United States for retreats that feature small-group interactions among writers and readers in a variety of informal settings. This year’s Booktopia retreats take place in Manchester, Vermont (site of the original Booktopia in 2011); Boulder, Colorado (May 16-18); and Asheville, North Carolina (August 22-24).
Now, don’t go trying to register for this year’s events unless you’re prepared to eliminate with extreme prejudice several dozen registered attendees and wait-listers. Booktopia is wildly, fanatically popular, with weekend events booking up within minutes of on-line registration going live. Several times over the course of the weekend I spoke to Booktopians who related, with vague, haunted looks in their eyes, the elaborate lengths to which they went to assure themselves of a spot: multiple browsers and computers working the registration URL simultaneously, locked office doors guarding against intruders during the registration window, friends and relatives going online at just the right moment to attack the page all at once, NSA employees blackmailed and extorted to hack into the “Books on the Nightstand” system, and so on.
A similar fanaticism inspires the discrete events structuring the weekend’s festivities. After a gorgeous drive up from Albany (the closest airport) along historic Route 7, I arrived in time to participate in an opening, get-to-know-you event called the Yankee Swap, a bookish version of a White Elephant gift exchange. Everyone brings along a gift-wrapped book (a cherished favorite, an impulse buy in the airport, the nearest book to your front door), and all are placed on a table in the middle of the room. (My book was Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, one of the scariest works of suspense I’ve ever read.) Each participant gets a ticket with a number, and the facilitator within each group draws numbers to determine the order. As the exchange proceeds, each player can either keep the book chosen at random from the table, or swap his/her book for a more desirable book chosen by a previous participant. You’re also asked to talk about why you brought the title you did, so we all learned just a little bit about each other while swapping books.
My number was drawn relatively late in the game, so we were quite a ways into the swap when it came to my turn. I don’t remember what book I opened (sorry!), nor which book I ended up with (sorry again!), but I do remember what book I wanted: a beautiful hardback copy of Irène by Pierre Lemaitre, a French police procedural described in lavish and loving detail by the Booktopian who’d brought it along. The book had already inspired several “swaps” (the polite Booktopian word for “Blatant Fucking Theft”), but we were far enough along that I thought I might just be safe.
No so. Just as I’d grown complacent, assuming Irène was mine to keep, Holly, an ostensibly pleasant young woman from Chicago, engaged in a bit of newcomer hazing and, with devastating wit and great aplomb, lifted the book from my hands to laughter and delight from the crowd. “You should have seen the look on your face,” several dozen Booktopians guffawed over the remainder of the weekend. Holly’s name for the balance of Booktopia was simply “Chicago,” and it was difficult to treat her civilly, though I tried my best.
I spend so much time describing an icebreaker because it’s indicative of the bookish camaraderie characterizing Booktopia more generally–and here I should say a few words about my fellow authors in Manchester for the weekend, who all gathered for dinner on opening night. Two of them are bestselling memoir writers: Kelly Corrigan, author of Glitter & Glue, who delighted the crowds with her equally moving and hilarious accounts of her life as a daughter, a mother, and a writer; and Gail Caldwell, whose New Life, No Instructions explores the nature of survival, and who offered some poignant reflections on the power of friendship and community in the face of loss. The first afternoon I participated in a session on historical fiction with P.S. Duffy, author of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, a sweeping historical novel about World War I. Penny was a smart and delightful interlocutor, and the session was a great way to kick off the weekend. There was also a historian among us: the great John Demos, Professor Emeritus at Yale and the Bancroft-winning author of The Unredeemed Captive, among many other works. John was at Booktopia to promote The Heathen School, his fascinating study of a “civilizing” school in early nineteenth-century Connecticut. I also spent a lot of time with the English writer Rupert Thomson, whose haunting novel Secrecy imagines the tangled life of a wax sculptor working in Renaissance Florence. I had previously read Rupert’s Soft (2012), his amazing novel of manners set in contemporary London. He was accompanied by his publisher at Other Press, the brilliant Judith Gurewich, a practicing psychotherapist who can talk about Jacques Lacan and the publishing industry with equal fluency. It was also a pleasure to meet Sara J. Henry, a previous Booktopia author based in Vermont and attending as a guest this year (if you haven’t already, check out her literary suspense novels Learning to Swim, which won multiple awards, and more recently A Cold and Lonely Place). We were joined at dinner by the incredible staff of Northshire Bookstore, a learned group of retailers and marketers who have created a truly awe-inspiring shrine to reading in the middle of rural New England. Yet it wasn’t all navel gazing and mutual admiration, as we discussed some of the many factors changing the face of commercial publishing these days, as well as the challenges these transformations present to authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers.
The two individual author sessions I did on Saturday (one in the morning, the other in the afternoon) were just extraordinary, some of the most rewarding exchanges I’ve had since the novel came out. The two facilitators, Earle Ray and Jennifer Entwhistle, were delightfully provocative, and they asked sharp questions of their own while fielding attendees’ comments and queries with grace and ease. I couldn’t have asked for smarter session leaders or better, more engaging audiences.
The weekend’s culminating event came on Saturday night, when the six featured authors spoke to a crowd of several hundred at Northshire Bookstore. Each of us was asked to speak for about ten minutes on anything we wanted to. Contributions ranged from Rupert’s provocative reflections on the rustic house in Tuscany where he wrote several of his novels to Kelly’s condensed story of her writing life, its chronology helpfully signposted with the #1 books on the New York Times bestseller list from year to year.
My own contribution to the festivities was a retelling of Bede’s story of Caedmon from the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Um, what? I know, I know. But I wanted to evoke the Caedmon story to talk about the many ways in which my own fiction writing has been inspired by medieval literature itself as well the medieval capacity and patience for inventive story-telling. The tale of Caedmon (which you can find in convenient form here) is often imagined as the legendary beginning of English literature, but it’s also very much about the power of story as a medium of cultural transmission and translation.
Unfortunately I didn’t say quite what I wanted to at the podium. I was asked to go first (thanks, Michael!), I was a little nervous given the huge crowd, and it was only once I sat down that I realized why exactly I’d felt inspired to talk about Caedmon to the Booktopia audience in the first place.
Let me explain. Caedmon’s tale, and arguably the English literary tradition, begins over a thousand years ago in a monastery’s great hall: a space a bit like Hrothgar’s Heorot in Beowulf, a mead-hall that serves as the setting for the ritual exchanges of stories and legends that make up much of early English literature.
And I’d argue that Booktopia is one of the closest modern equivalents to the medieval mead hall: a convivial fellowship of dozens and hundreds of faire folke united by their passion for well-crafted narratives, and gathered together for the simple but profound purpose of swapping stories they love and want to share over good food and flowing drink.
Really flowing drink. As that age-old aphorism has it, “What happens at Booktopia stays at Booktopia,” so I can’t reveal the true extent of the debauchery in Manchester that weekend. I will tell you that it involved a wrestling ring, Vermont microbrews, a miniature pony, and lots of whiskey. But the story of Booktopia is above all the story of books: physical books, passed from hand to hand and reader to reader. That’s the Booktopia I’ll remember most fondly, and with deep gratitude to all the new friends and fellow fanatics who made it possible.