“If language were liquid

It would be rushing in

Instead here we are

In a silence more eloquent

Than any word could ever be

Words are too solid

They don’t move fast enough

To catch the blur in the brain

That flies by and is gone”

Suzanne Vega, “Language” (1986)

I attended my first North Carolina Literary Festival when I was a student at Duke.  This event is presented on a rotating basis by the Duke University Libraries, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries, and the North Carolina State University Libraries.  What I have appreciated about this event since the beginning is its ability to bring together very diverse audiences — university students, retirees, academics, casual readers, families.  I’m not in a position to evaluate whether this attendance is primarily the result of good advertising or more a reflection of the make-up of the Triangle population or solely due to the star power of the authors, but no matter what, this Festival certainly counts as public outreach done well by these libraries.

This year, the theme was The Future of Reading — a challenge to the theory that reading is on the decline and also a recognition that reading is now occurring in different formats.  This afternoon, I got to listen to Tom Brothers talk about his research on Louis Armstrong that led to his book Master of Modernism.  Having long been a fan of the Satchmo, I was interested to learn more about his career in the 1920s and early 1930s, but I was also struck by the language the Brothers employed in his analysis.  I’m trained in history, so I already knew of the awkward line that black musicians walked in this era — often times playing to whites-only crowds — but Brothers spoke of Armstrong’s embracing the African American vernacular in his music played even to these white audiences.  I had never applied to term vernacular to music, but upon hearing Brothers’ use of it, I immediately understood and appreciated his meaning.

I also had the opportunity to hear Wiley Cash and Lee Smith read from their latest books — for Wiley Cash This Dark Road to Mercy and for Lee Smith Guests on Earth.  For me, the readings are always great because I like being able to hear the author’s words in her own voice.  Cash and Smith also prepared questions to ask each other as a means of providing the audience a window into their creative processes.  In speaking about inspirations, Cash explained that he thinks he learned how to write by reading others.  In answering a question about writing from different perspectives, he referenced the notion of Charles Chesnutt that all fiction is the act of rearranging your memory.  Smith had an interesting way to distinguish fiction from other genres, suggesting that “fiction is all about trouble.”  Without conflict, a story can be a form of reporting, but in her opinion, it doesn’t qualify as fiction.  Smith also talked of occasionally being surprised at the choices her characters make.  I one time heard Margaret Maron speak of a similar bafflement caused by her lead character Deborah Knott, so I wasn’t surprised to hear Smith speak in this fashion, but it still amuses me to consider that these characters they create can seemingly take on lives of their own.  Both in their printed prose and in their answers to impromptu questions from the audience, Smith and Cash caused me to marvel at their ability “to catch the blur in the brain” and share with their audiences language and characters whose voices and troubles are so compelling that we keep turning the pages.

Events like this North Carolina Literary Festival obviously require a great deal of planning and fundraising, but it is a worthy service to the community that should continue being supported by these university libraries as well as the sponsors.