Hooked on Books

By staff November 1, 2002

My idea of perfect happiness is a new book by a favorite author and a quiet night to read it in, and it's been that way as long as I can remember. I grew up in a big, boisterous family, and they all still tease me about how, with murderous warfare raging all about me, I would sit at the dinner table, blissfully absorbed in a book. I even took whatever I was reading to school and would hide it inside my textbook. While the teacher droned on, I would be far, far away, floating down the Mississippi River with Huck and Jim or choking back tears as the sisters gathered around Beth's deathbed in Little Women.

I landed in the right place when I came to Sarasota, because this is a city full of readers. We go to the library much more than most Americans-6.7 visits per person per year, compared to 3.4 for the state and 4.2 for the country. And we buy books, too; consumers in the Tampa-Sarasota region spent $211,300,000 on books, magazines and periodicals last year, almost double what was spent in Miami, which has about the same number of people. Our Barnes & Noble was an "instant success" when it opened in 1995, says special event coordinator Frank Troncale, and as author Tim Dorsey points out in this issue, we also have some of the state's best independent bookstores. Bookstores, Dorsey maintains, are even better than bars for forgetting one's troubles. "I've never gotten in a fight, lost my wallet or thrown up in a bookstore," he notes, and plenty of locals would agree with him.

We even have a festival devoted to books-the Sarasota Reading Festival, which celebrates its fifth anniversary on Nov. 2. Around 17,000 people attended last year. The lines for the authors' talks snaked around the block outside the Opera House, and the 1,100-seat auditorium was completely filled for almost every session. Nearly 1,800 people showed up to hear David McCullough; those who couldn't get inside watched him on a live video feed. That kind of rock-star reception for a scholarly biographer isn't what most writers expect, and Caren Lobo, a founder and driving force behind the festival's success, says, "They're pretty much blown away." Last year TV news anchor and author Lesley Stahl stood onstage and declared, "This is the best festival in the United States!"

If it is, it's because the organizers ensure that it's an event that "can walk and chew gum," as Lobo describes it, a multi-faceted show aimed at many different sectors of the community-kids, adults, sponsors, booksellers, exhibitors and more. At the SARASOTA booth you can meet the staff, sign up for a subscription and take away some magazines as well. For the last three years, we've also offered an appraisal clinic for owners of antiquarian books. The first year, we worried about whether anyone would show up-collecting rare books is not exactly a mainstream hobby-but before the festival officially opened, we had more than 100 people waiting to show their treasures to our appraisers.

This year, we're branching out into astrology, with a genuine (well, genuine-looking psychic) who will tell visitors their literary horoscopes and give them bookmarks that fit their zodiac signs. Editor Anu Varma-who usually eats her lunch on the office back porch while she devours whatever book she's reading-turned the bookmarks into little literary treasures, with information about authors, books and works featured at this year's festival. If you're reading this in time, we hope you'll come by and get the one designed for you.

But the real stars of the festival are the authors. Lobo and her cohorts do a brilliant job of mixing big names with up-and-comers and seeking out good writers who are also good speakers. As an editor, I've noted that it's not always wise to enthuse about one author's work to another, especially if the first has just scored a smash hit, but even authors who aren't featured at the festival rave about these speakers. "They're not just entertaining, they're stimulating," one writer told me. "They open up new worlds and ways of thinking to you, make you see all sorts of things in a different way." Which is, when you think about it, exactly what we expect from a wonderful book.

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