Writers and Readers

I’m not a scholar. I figured that out in the process of deciding not to go for a graduate degree in literature. I’m too restless. I don’t have the focus to dig into the life of a 19th century poet and come up with some new tidbit of information that could be the basis for a PhD thesis. I admire the people who become scholars, and their scholarship often helps the rest of us understand a complex idea or appreciate the contributions of a forgotten literary or historical figure. Nevertheless, I want to stay current in the world and challenge myself with new ideas. It’s what we all need to do as educated, responsible citizens.

Whether it’s a subscribing to the NY Times or Vanity Fair, checking out Slate or The New Republic online, viewing a documentary film, attending a local theater production, reading a novel or skimming through a multi-volume work of narrative non-fiction I think it’s critical at any age to stay engaged.

Last week I was able to do something I have wanted to do for 16 years; I attended the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference in Idaho. Over the years the conference has grown from a small gathering of important writers and avid readers to a large gathering where writers and readers of every persuasion get together for four days to exchange ideas and review what’s current in the world of writing.

While the conference was in session President Obama was on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, and during his vacation he visited a bookstore there. It was announced, at the conference, that the President bought three books – Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (winner of this year’s National Critics Circle Award for non-fiction, David Grossman’s novel To the End of the Land (winner of the same award for fiction), and David Brooks’ recent best seller, The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character, and Achievement. The announcement triggered a big ovation at the conference, since all three of the authors were present and featured during the week.

The SV Writers’ Conference is a special occasion experience – it’s expensive ($850) and it’s remote (rural Idaho). It is like the special occasion restaurant where one goes on birthdays or anniversaries. It’s always the favorite but too pricey to be a regular haunt. Still, the conference reminds us that books and writers are important. It might be next to impossible to attend the SVWC, but it is not impossible to participate in the literary life. The Weekend section of the Seattle Times listed 20 author readings at local bookstores this week in addition to an event at the Seattle Public Library. There is something for everyone, from children’s books to travel, from mystery to world events. You just have to be vigilant to find your event.

By the way, Katherine Stockett, the Southern Belle who wrote The Help, is an charming and irreverent hoot. She was also at the conference along with US Poet Laureate WS Merwin and Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker. It was a great lineup, but if you watch the paper I’ll bet you can see and hear all of them in the next year at one of your local places.

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