By Rachel Aydt
Earlier this month, November 7 and 8, devoted readers from around the country gathered at the event space Metropolitan West in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen for a literary love-fest called Book Riot Live. Book Riot is an online platform that promotes books and reading with reviews, podcasts, original content and more. The attendees were comprised mostly of enthusiastic readers rather than those in the business. The vibe of the conference was inclusive and diverse; gender preference name tags were on deck at the registration table. A three-stage, two-story featured live podcast recordings, readings, and the featured Grand Dame of the shebang, Ms. Margaret Atwood herself, there to talk with fellow novelist N.K. Jemisin about the process of “writing what you don’t know.”
At the panel, Jemisin and Atwood had a lively conversation with moderator, Jenn Northington of Book Riot. Atwood recalled the first novel she’d ever written, at 7 years old, and about how it involved something she knew little about. “Well, I won’t try to write another novel about an ant. It’s only after ¾ of their life cycle do they finally have a chance to actually do something (the first three being egg, larva and pupa). Ax murdering and gerbil strangling are also both things I’ve never done.” Unsurprisingly, she’s been fascinated with Totalitarian regimes since she was a very young person, though she read Animal Farm “thinking it was going to be like Pooh.”
For both Jemisin and Atwood, writing books about other times and other worlds has come easier than writing about the present-day in the present-place. “The hardest thing to write about is now, because six months later it’s not now … In now, nothing is uniform,” said Atwood. “But with the future you can have control because it doesn’t exist so there isn’t anyone who can tell you it’s wrong, so long as it’s your world.”
Two best friends who attended this panel, Joanna and Amber, had come from Pennsylvania to enjoy New York for the weekend. Both were reading when I rudely interrupted them to find out what had brought them there, and they seemed emblematic of the crowd at large. Both have Goodreads accounts, and belong to a book club at home called “The Ex-Pats” which is devoted to long-ago graduated English majors longing for camaraderie. Other people I met casually in various lines were also avid readers and not in the biz. Vicki Woodbum, a “tax person and terrible writer” came to soak in as much about her reading hobby as she could. “I love listening to the writers. Reading is such a huge part of my life. It’s my escape.” A mother and daughter who trekked up from Florida had taken in the sights the night before on a double decker tour bus, and the daughter wearily told her mother she was going to need a 30- minute silence cone before long. “I don’t know how people live here; it’s so loud.”
Vendors on both floors were a-plenty. Some of the usual suspects were Out of Print clothing company, which designed the weekend’s T-shirt, and Litographs, a clothing and literary swag company that sponsored the weekend’s tattoo chain from The Handmaid’s Tale. One particularly lucky girl who posted a photo of her forearm on the Book Riot Live Facebook page donned a snippet that read “specially picked from the angels.”
Other community building efforts were on deck Saturday, with the Brooklyn Library Book Match table on hand to match readers with new-to-them books. Fill out their flier with books you like/ don’t like, and they match you with recommendations. I tried it out and watched my “To Be Read” pile grow by three titles in the matter of minutes. (You can do this too by going to their website, http://www.bklynlibrary.org/bookmatch.)
Another vendor, Call Me Ishmael, was there fresh off of their Kickstarter campaign. The group has created groovy old-school looking phones that contain pre-recorded messages of strangers musing about their favorite books. I selected a review of Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetch, which ended up being a 4-minute reflection of a Boomer remembering what it was like to grow up during segregation, and how Dr. Seuss inspired wider thoughts around that. Ten of their phones were purchased from the Kickstarter and will be rolled out in bookstores and public libraries in the next few months.
The literary social change activist group The Harry Potter Alliance was also a presence, and its members wore their special green “Wizard Activist” name tags below their Book Riot entry passes. Everyone there was reading! In line, quiet people held their books up to their nose, waiting for them to be signed. There was a reading lounge where more quiet people sat on puffy beanbag-style chairs and read. All in all it was a great event, a very well orchestrated Riot, indeed.