The Virginia Festival of the Book: Celebrating 25 years of literature in Charlottesville

This week, the Virginia Festival of the Book will bring in thousands of readers, writers and lovers of literature.

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The 2019 Virginia Festival of the Book celebrated its 25th anniversary. Courtesy Jinwook Hwang

As the largest community-based book event in the Mid-Atlantic region, the Virginia Festival of the Book began in 1995, and for the past 13 years, it has attracted audiences of more than 20,000 each year. Produced by the Virginia Humanities, the festival welcomes University students and faculty, Charlottesville residents and avid readers outside of the Charlottesville area. 

The 25th annual Virginia Festival of the Book consisted of readings, panels and workshops held at various venues both on Grounds — including the Bookstore and the Special Collections Auditorium — and in the Charlottesville area, such as the New Dominion Bookshop, Jefferson-Madison Regional Library and the Omni Charlottesville Hotel. 

Of the programs that took place during the festival, 10 of them featured presenters affiliated with the University. These presenters included current professors and alumni of both the Master of Fine Arts program and the specialized undergraduate Area Program in Poetry Writing, and among these presenters were University Creative Writing Professors Chris Tilghman and Jane Alison.

“The festival has always involved lots of faculty in the department, particularly creative writing,” Tilghman said. “Every year we [are] involved in … organizing or hosting panels, moderating panels, and then … showing our own work when the year comes.”

Tilghman’s presentation took place March 22 from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Central Jefferson-Madison Regional Library’s McIntire Room. He presented on a panel with a group of writers whose works centered around a common theme, which varied from panel to panel. 

Tilghman’s panel was about couples “who for one reason or another kind of start over in some different country.”

Alison presented March 21 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library on her new book called “Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative.” The book is set to come out in April 2019 and discusses the patterning and development of stories in natural shapes, rather than in the traditional, structured story arc. According to Alison, it deals with “different ways of understanding stories that ... go against some of the traditional ways that we are often taught.” 

Alison presented alongside Lois Farfel Stark, a producer, documentary filmmaker and author who also discussed designs and patterns in the world. Alison explained the relationship between the University’s English department and the book festival.

“The creative writing program does have a lot of writers who publish regularly and a lot of alumni, the same ... and [Charlottesville is] a pretty literary town — it makes sense for us to take part in the festival,” Alison said. 

Furthermore, Creative Writing MFA candidate Aimee Seu said that the festival’s timing in early spring makes the festival popular specifically among prospective MFA students who have been accepted to the program but have not yet enrolled.

Seu further discussed the value of the Virginia Festival of the Book and similar book festivals in fostering a community of people with literary interests. 

“Reading can be such a solitary activity,” Seu said. “The Festival of the Book is … a really good way [to] make that social and … show that there’s a community of people who are all secretly obsessed with books, separately in their own houses.”

Alison believes festivals like the Virginia Festival of the Book not only provide a community for readers but are also beneficial for the presenting writers as well.

“Readers ... have pretty revelatory questions that they can ask writers about … what they’ve done and why and how,” Alison said. “And so it’s nice for us to be reminded of our processes and inspiration.”

The Virginia Festival of the Book started March 20 and concluded March 24. All festival programs were open to the public and the majority of events were free of charge.

The festival serves as an important reminder of the value of books in today’s increasingly commercial and digitized society, which, according to Seu, too often turns to social media posts and quick news in lieu of literature.

“You can get something ridiculous and amazing from a selection of poetry or a novel or a longer book that you just can’t get from a headline [or] a one-liner,” Seu said. “It’s like world-building.”  

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