Last month, world-famous author Salman Rushdie stopped in Harrisburg for what may have been our area’s biggest literary event in—well, who knows how long?
You can thank Midtown Scholar Bookstore for putting central PA on the literary map, as it makes a pitch to become a regular stop on the national book tour circuit.
In that same spirit, the bookstore now is reviving an event that had been, uh, shelved, for a few years. This month, the Harrisburg Book Festival returns, bringing with it nationally acclaimed authors, poets, book reviewers, local artists and more.
“The festival this year finally deserves to be called a festival,” said Midtown Scholar’s co-owner Catherine Lawrence. “It’s extending over four days, which is longer than it’s been in the past, and the caliber of authors is extraordinary.”
The festival opens with poets Safia Sinclair, author of “Cannibal,” and Joshua Bennett, who will read from his work, “Sobbing School,” highlighted by a musical appearance from local band Shawan and the Wonton.
The next day, National Book Award winner Ibram Kendi will give the festival’s keynote address. His book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” discusses the journey of racist thought from 15th-century Europe to the present day.
“I’m definitely most excited to see Dr. Ibram X. Kendi deliver the keynote address,” said Midtown Scholar’s manager Alex Brubaker. “Considering our current political and racial climate, there are not many other authors I’d like to see deliver the keynote than Dr. Kendi.”
On Saturday, four acclaimed book reviewers will take the stage, including Beth Ann Patrick, creator of “Friday Reads,” and other reviewers from National Public Radio, the Washington Post and LitHub. They’ll answer questions about the most popular books of 2017, if book reviewers still matter in today’s society and how printed books continue to thrive in the digital age.
“I think literature, and by extension, books are worth celebrating,” said Brubaker. “The physical book and its necessary role within a living, evolving culture isn’t going away, and we want to throw a party in the best possible place—a brick-and-mortar bookstore.”
Midtown Scholar’s book festival debuted in June 2010 with a handful of authors and local artists. At the time, headliner Jackson Taylor, author of “The Blue Orchard,” sat down and conversed with the audience and with bookstore co-owner Eric Papenfuse, now mayor of Harrisburg.
“[Conversation] has always been my favorite part of a festival,” said Lawrence. “It allows not only the audience to be engaged as questioners, but even the people on stage. They’re not coming to us with the answers about their books. They’re coming to us to be part of a broader conversation about that makes this book work.”
The good conversation will continue with author and Philadelphia native Liz Moore of “The Unseen World” and New York Times bestselling novelist Jennifer Haigh of “Heat and Light.” The authors will share stories about their novels and talk about the good, the bad and the ugly that went into creating them.
“There’s an intimacy at book readings that is different than if you were to have a lecture in a school auditorium where there is someone at the podium and everyone else in the seats,” Lawrence said. “We have a space that values the questions readers bring to authors.”
On the Map
At the festival, Midtown Scholar will offer a place for acclaimed authors to meet their readers and fans. But it also will advance the ambitions of the bookstore, which wants to become a go-to spot for literary lovers and traveling authors.
“Now, we’re really a part of authors’ national book tours, and we weren’t before,” Lawrence said. “We are on the map. We’re now a part of the places authors must go to have interested audiences in our really unique space.”
This growth stems from the store’s connection with the wide array of reading interests in the area.
“Central Pennsylvania has a thriving community of readers that doesn’t often get the opportunity to engage with authors like the ones that we are bringing in,” Brubaker said. “With this festival, I think we’re making our mark as a bona fide literary destination.”
Each festival since 2010—this will be the fifth—has grown in terms of artists and attendance, and Midtown Scholar expects more than 2,000 attendees this time around, which is about as many as the bookstore can host over a long weekend.
“What matters is that people come and find interesting conversations to have,” Lawrence said. “We’re in a small town and yet there are many aspects of the artistic and literary culture that really are out-performing what one would expect from a small town in central Pennsylvania.”
The 2017 Harrisburg Book Festival takes place Oct. 12 to 15 at Midtown Scholar Bookstore, 1302 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For a complete list of events, visit midtownscholar.com.
The Harrisburg Book Festival is packed with four days of readings, signings, talks and events. Here are a few highlights to bookmark.
Oct. 12: Opening Night Reception
Oct. 13: Keynote by Ibram X. Kendi
Oct. 14: Children’s Book Festival
Oct. 14: “The Role of the Critic in the Digital Age”
Oct. 14: “The Art of the Novel”
Oct. 15: “An Afternoon with Elizabeth Wein”
Oct. 15: A Conversation with Ruth Franklin, Biographer of Shirley Jackson
Unfortunately, you may not be able to spend four straight days at the Harrisburg Book Festival. But here are five authors you won’t want to miss.
- Ibram X. Kendi, historian, author of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racism in America”
- Jennifer Haigh, novelist, author of “Heat & Light”
- Ruth Franklin, biographer, author of “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life”
- Safiya Sinclair, poet, author of “Cannibal”
- Liz Moore, novelist, author of “The Unseen World”