One of the undeniable joys of living in Central Kentucky is attending the annual Kentucky Book Fair. Each year the event, currently presented by the Kentucky Humanities Council, attracts well over 100 authors from across the commonwealth and the nation. The authors smile patiently as eager readers press up against their tables asking questions or bending their ears about topics they may or may not have much interest in. Many authors agree to give hour-long presentations about their books, the craft of writing, trends in literature, or their areas of expertise. The convention area is packed with readers, writers, and lovers of books. It is absolutely magical.
Author and activist bell hooks, a Hopkinsville, Ky., native, was one of the featured authors this year. During her on-stage conversation with another Kentucky native, author Crystal Wilkinson, she talked about how, as a child, she had been transported by the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Sometime later, when hooks first saw a photo of Dickinson, she was shocked to learn that Dickinson was a white woman. She explained that she had never envisioned Dickinson as a person at all. In her young mind, no writers had physical embodiments: they were the words that spilled across the page, sprung from some mysterious ethereal source.
When afforded the privilege of being in close physical proximity to a writer I cherish, I am immediately overcome with awkwardness. Somewhat like the young hooks, I imagine that writers exist in some illusory world outside our physical reality, beyond the clumsy clay feet of the rest of us. I have been attending the Book Fair for at least 25 years, but I have only recently had the nerve to actually approach any of the authors. I have typically been too awestruck to presume I could strike up a conversation with them. My husband, on the other hand, is completely comfortable wading right in. I remember watching in disbelief as he casually chatted with James Still or Bobbie Ann Mason. Like young bell, I consumed the words on the page but I could not fully imagine the embodiment of the human being behind those words, even when that person was standing right in front of me.
I’m sure I got my reverence for books from my parents. I was lucky that way, but I didn’t completely understand that until I heard bell hooks and Crystal Wilkinson share stories of their disparate childhoods. While Wilkinson admitted that she had been a “spoiled only child” who was allowed to read voraciously as others in her family tended to the necessary chores, hooks, one of seven children, told the audience that her parents were skeptical of reading, fearful that it might plant unwelcome ideas in a child’s head. Her access to books was more restricted. The library at her segregated school, overseen by a white librarian, was not available to the children every day. The public library, however, became a refuge. She told a story of a neighbor alerting her that someone had just thrown away a collection of small leather-bound classics. bell promptly retrieved them from the garbage.
My parents read all the time, so I learned to value books and newspapers at an early age. My sister and I received a book for Christmas every year. No matter what other shiny object might be under the tree, we knew we had to give the book the attention it was due. By the time my sister was a teenager, she had amassed an impressive library. I would sneak into her room and handle those books, awestruck by the variety and the sometimes bewildering titles. The Gulag Archipelago. The Bhagavad Gita. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Bell Jar.
Reading is not a central activity of the boys spending time at The Last Resort. Although my father sometimes reports they spent the afternoon reading, he provides no specifics. The journal that he kept as an adult, however, which is excerpted in The Last Resort, includes detailed lists of his casual reading, which ranges from popular novels to biographies to Thoreau’s Walden to Ridpath’s history to Thurber’s humorous essays. That information alone gives you a clear understanding of the man. We are, after all, what we read.
Today I am surrounded by books—on shelves, stacked neatly on nearly every horizontal surface, or piled on the floor beside me. I have purchased many of them at the Kentucky Book Fair. I confess that I have not yet read them all. But I love every last one. I find it nearly impossible to part with any of them. Sometime last year, I emailed my sister, describing the book clutter around my house and bemoaning the fact I never have enough time to read. She wrote back, “There's a Japanese word for that: tsundoku, the practice of accumulating books yet failing to read them.” She then shared a quote from John Updike: “Shelved rows of books warm and brighten the starkest room, and scattered single volumes reveal mental processes in progress—books in the act of consumption, abandoned but readily resumable, tomorrow or next year.” That was comforting.
As I was leaving the Book Fair this year I was proud that I hadn’t spent hundreds of dollars, as I have sometimes in the past. Fewer than 24 hours later, however, I’m feeling both guilty and sad that I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to purchase a few books that had actually been handled by the authors themselves. Another lesson learned.
Although there is a common misconception that Kentuckians are ignorant and uneducated, we who are privileged to live here know that we have an extraordinary wealth of writers and philosophers in our midst. The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington annually inducts writers into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. The list of nationally recognized writers the committee has to choose from is long. And although recent efforts by the Carnegie Center to have Lexington named a UNESCO City of Literature failed, literary leaders across Central and Eastern Kentucky intend to apply again in 2019 (that is, unless President Trump withdraws the U.S. from UNESCO before that date).
When bell hooks decided to return to Kentucky after spending many years away, her good friend Gloria Steinem was aghast. “But, bell,” she asked, “Who will be your friends?"
hooks had no trouble finding a welcoming community of writers in Berea and across the commonwealth. Each year I can look around at the mass of people at the Kentucky Book Fair and smile. These are my people—the readers and the writers and the worshippers of the word. These are the people who keep me thinking and learning and growing. To all of the authors who spend a full day in Central Kentucky greeting their fans, to all of the readers who support the writers, I am immensely grateful.