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EVENT RECAP: The 26th Annual Southern Festival of Books

The 2014 Festival a success, despite less-than-cooperative weather

The Southern Festival of Books: A Celebration of the Written Word(sm) has been around for 26 years now. Perhaps because last year was our quarter-century milestone, this year we seemed to be thinking and dreaming more here at Humanities Tennessee about how to preserve the parts of the Festival that are familiar, and that work, while also being open to new ideas and traditions that will engage more readers in the event and in the books that are the reason for its existence. 

The caliber of authors, the diversity of the program, and the community of readers and writers that come together are the essence of the Festival, and these are things that we hope, if anything, to continue to improve upon. And there are more tangible elements that are beloved, like the big banners hanging from the War Memorial columns, the festive striped tents and, yes, the Jack Daniel’s in the author goody bags! 

For the first time this year, though, we stepped off of the Legislative Plaza and went over to Third Man Records for a brand-new event. Literary Death Match livened up our Saturday night with a format that’s been popular around the country, a cross between a poetry slam and the gong show that brought readers to their feet and reminded us that ideas are living things to get excited about, and that it’s okay to make some noise with that excitement! Thanks to our partners at The Porch Writer’s Collective, we made some new friends and maybe even started a new Festival tradition. 

While rain on Friday and Saturday prevented one of our own favorite Festival sights--readers meeting and browsing on the Plaza steps--our whole staff was heartened by the crowds of readers who came out with their rain boots and umbrellas to hear their favorite authors and discover new ones, to browse the booths, and of course to buy books. We offer special thanks to the exhibitors, stage performers, and food vendors who kept the spirit of the Festival cheerful and welcoming despite the drizzle. More than one of you suggested that we sell Festival-branded umbrellas in future years. We’re thinking about ordering some, if only because that might guarantee that it won’t rain! 

All day Friday, reports came in of crowded session rooms and great conversations. Christina Baker Kline shared the story behind her blockbuster bestseller Orphan Train. Congressman Jim Cooper, author Kevin Powers and our partners at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University helped us to launch a yearlong series of programs aimed at veterans and the homecoming experience. 

Friday night, our annual Authors in the Round fundraising dinner welcomed a record crowd of more than 425 book lovers and 43 authors to War Memorial Auditorium. Authors participating in 2014 included: Rick Bragg, Congressman James Clyburn, Pat Conroy, Joshua Ferris, Christina Baker Kline, Gary Shteyngart, Gabrielle Zevin, and many more. We took a few moments to remember the late John Seigenthaler, with highlights from “A Word on Words” featuring his conversations with everyone from Julia Child to Bill Moyers. We thank WNPT for putting together the video, one that brought smiles for our departed friend, who had hosted the event since its inception seven years ago. Special thanks to our 2014 dinner co-chairs, Lee Pratt and Neil Krugman, whose hard work resulted in the dinner raising more than $90,000 for the Festival this year!

With bodies but not spirits dampened by rain, the crowds came out again on Saturday for a full day of sessions, starting with the Women’s National Book Association Coffee with Authors at the Nashville Public Library. This event celebrates National Reading Group Month, and authors Lily King, Nadia Hashimi, Gabrielle Zevin and Ann Weisgarber talked about books with moderator Mary Laura Philpott of Parnassus Books. It’s a great way to start a busy day on the Plaza!

On Saturday, we welcomed Pete the Cat creator Eric Litwin, along with Pete himself, as part of a stellar lineup of author readings and events for young readers. From illustrator John Rocco to Young Adult superstar Lauren Oliver, authors for young readers were present and popular all day Saturday and Sunday. P.S. We found Waldo! 

We were chided a bit by the Nashville Scene for the hard choices to be made on Saturday, but we hope no one really minded. National Book Award finalists Emily St. John Mandel and Phil Klay made their first Festival appearances, along with Lawrence Wright, Gary Shteyngart and, Pat Conroy. The signing lines were long, a great chance to make new friends! 

C-SPAN’s BookTV recorded a number of them that you may have missed, so check out the website for schedule information on those sessions! 

We started Sunday in a big way with the legendary Jasper Fforde. Why does everything sound better with a British accent? And we ended it with the great Lev Grossman, whose Magician’s Land closes out one of the most popular fantasy series of modern times. In between there was gospel music, hot chicken (of course!), performances on the new Artober performing arts stage, parties and crafts at the Youth Stage and, of course, many, many books! 

At the end of the day, a remarkably small group of people does a remarkably large amount of work to pack it all up in just a couple of hours. It’s a bittersweet moment when the banners come down after a year of hard work and a weekend filled with writers and readers. We can’t say enough great things about the volunteers from the community who share their time and energy to make the Festival happen, because they are readers, and readers love to share. 

If you want to keep in touch through the year, you can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And one last note, if you haven’t already downloaded the incredible new Festival app, please do! We’ll keep the news and social media sections updated all year, and maybe offer a few hints and gifts for those following along.

For in-depth coverage of a whole host of Festival authors, please visit our literary site,

Thanks to all who made the 26th Festival such a memorable one, and we’ll see you next year on the Plaza!