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Brooklyn Book Festival: The moral mysteries

September 13, 2010 | 12:30 pm


The afternoon after Sept. 11, it was raining in Brooklyn, and the stalls at the Brooklyn Book Festival were covered in a fine, cool mist. Foot traffic was down, and attendees were huddled inside panel areas at Brooklyn Borough Hall or St. Francis College, where writers such as Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane discussed the mystery, while in an adjacent signing area, Salman Rushdie autographed copies of his books.

The day had a slow feel, diffuse like the weather, which had threatened in the morning before moving in after lunch. In Queens, the men’s final of the U.S. Open was postponed, while halfway across the continent, the Yankees were losing again in Texas, clinging to first place in the AL East by the merest margin.

This was New York in the first few days of the fall season, a city, in its own way, suspended between the present and the past. On Saturday, near ground zero, protesters disagreed about everything from the proposed Islamic center in the area to the "tea party," with members of the group holding a rally decrying the Islamification of American life.

I’m not sure about that -- but the best thing I saw was a three-way argument among a Muslim, a fundamentalist Christian and an existentialist (I know, it sounds like the opening to a bad joke) about the Koran; as the first two talked at each other, firmly, insistently, the third danced around the edges of the conversation, chanting that the discussion was a moot one because the universe was meaningless.

By Sunday, when the Brooklyn Book Festival took place in the Borough Hall plaza, such arguments had been set aside, but you couldn’t help getting the sense that they were all related, if only in the ebb and flow of the city’s life. This is what’s so great about New York, that it is such a passing dreamscape, that in the space of a couple of blocks, or a couple of days, you can move from the ridiculous to the sublime. If the conversations at ground zero offered a taste of the former, the book festival was the expression of the latter, a gathering of writers and readers in the very essence of an urban setting, a festival that bleeds out into the streets.


The Brooklyn Book Festival, after all, is the only book event I know of where you come out of the subway right into the heart of the fair. There is no point of entry, no acclimatization; one minute, you’re on the 4 train, and the next, you’re surrounded by a crush of readers, walking, talking, perusing vendors and their wares.

There are stalls for local bookstores (Free Bird Books, Word, Manhattan’s Housing Works), for literary organizations (CLMP, the Center for Fiction), for publishers and journals (PM Press, the Feminist Press, A Public Space); there are outdoor stages and indoor stages, all clustered so closely that you don’t feel like you’re missing anything. This is New York too, that sense of proximity, of things pressing in on each other, and it gives the festival a vivid quality of inclusiveness, of community.

For that reason, perhaps, I didn’t attend a lot of panels at the festival, preferring to wander around. I did see Roseanne Cash discuss the difference between being an artist and a dilettante; later, I moderated a panel with Jabari Asim, Mona Simpson and Russell Banks, at which Banks described the trigger for a work of fiction as being his investment in “a moral mystery.”

I had not heard that phrase before, but I like it, this notion of a question so implacable, so unanswerable that we cannot put it down. It reminded me of what I had heard around ground zero, and how all that certainty still adds up to nothing, with the only common territory the one we cannot find.

Literature offers a way inside such questions, if not in a pragmatic than in an emotional sense. It encourages us to empathize with each other, to see the world through many filters, to understand that it is not the answering but the asking that’s important, to embrace the moral mysteries.

By the time Banks was finished talking, the rain was falling harder, and the festival had begun to empty out. I drifted to the steps of Borough Hall and looked out on the wet streets of Brooklyn, which glistened in the failing half-light with their own ambiguity.

-- David L. Ulin

Photos: The Brooklyn Book Festival from the stairs of Brooklyn Borough Hall. Credit: David L. Ulin