Every August, chances are you’ll find us in Charlotte Square Gardens at the world’s leading book festival. So, it was a nice way to end our Book Week Scotland to see director of Edinburgh International Book Festival, Nick Barley, end the inaugural Pentlands Book Festival, one organised by and for the local community, by talking about the impact of events like these.
“Edinburgh is the biggest and most important book festival in the world, but it’s hard for us to be the biggest and best,” he begins. “We strive to be better, constantly trying to get better and take risks.” They have to ask: Why? Who? How do we help? And, ultimately: What are they there for?
A film plays that shows the mix of authors, the scale of the event, and how they’re reaching out into new areas like 2014’s theatre piece Letters Home. The festival has everything from wild and wonderful children’s events, to Malala discussing her life and fight for females’ education.
“That’s all well and good,” says Nick, “but what purpose does it serve?” He is, by his own admission, a zealot for the power of culture, rattling off percentages and facts of the impact the arts has on Scotland. It’s a big one, to say the least. “Culture is a force, culture is about an imaginative population. Book festivals are a really important way to reach an audience. Books have such a broad scope.
“Get people reading, you get people thinking. Get people thinking and you’ve got culture.”
“For me, what’s important to do is range,” he explains. “Get people in.” One of his favourite events was a free one in memory of poet Paul Reekie that was on the night of a Hibs match. Hoards of football fans descended and wanted to get in to commemorate him, a fellow fan. “The value of book festivals is that they reach out to broad audience groups.”
They are, indeed, growing in popularity too. There’s over 400 in the UK, and over 40 in Scotland. They help make sense of what’s happening in the world, and can make an attempt to answer the bigger questions by getting together and discussing ideas.
One element he is proud of is the school’s programme, where buses full of school children come from all over – Mull, Aberdeenshire, Inverness, Falkirk – to see authors they wouldn’t otherwise get to see.
“Above all, what matters to all those people is to talk together and share ideas. We come together as citizens,” he says. Between the TV and emails, we operate as individuals, so “how do we get a sense of what society is? Book festivals give the community an opportunity to feel like society. Society matters.”
He believes that above the opportunity to meet famous authors, though that is an obvious draw, there is a sense of being more informed together that draws people in. There’s a sense of shared understanding, and one project they’re rolling out next year will be looking specifically at the act of reading and sharing reading.
“Reading is a creative act of meaning making,” he explains. You read something yourself, but to talk to someone else about it and know their thoughts opens up discussion, you like to know what others think, if it was the same or different, why. “You get something really special from it.”
“That’s why book festivals matter so much.”
One element Nick is particularly invested in is deeper engagement with his audience, as book festivals are ripe for encouraging the desire to widen participation He talks about the Open Book charity and some of their initiatives, how it helped people, how it operated in partnership and let those involved decide how it ran, but also how their view of the book festival changed, and how it moved from being a place that wasn’t for them to somewhere they loved.
The next year will see their Booked! programme roll out too. “Booked! is predicated on the idea that you have to work in partnership.” One of these is a mini festival in Falkirk, shaped by the community to reflect the community. The book festival will hit the road, and hopefully bring local knowledge back to Edinburgh in August. ”
He ends by showing a newly released copy of The Rights of Man by H.G. Wells. At 2015’s festival, Ali Smith gave an impassioned speech on the fight to keep the Human Rights Act. After hearing it, Nick called someone at Penguin and said this had to be re-released with this speech, and just a few days ago it came to fruition. H.G. Wells, introduced by Ali Smith. “That book being bought by those at the event is deeper engagement. They can read it for themselves.” It’s about experience beyond the main experience. “We’re offering deeper engagement and I want Edinburgh to be at the forefront of that.”
Audience questions consider author treatment, a sense of place, and whether there is still room for the reader who is more interested in sitting themselves with a book rather than the whole community setting. There is, of course!
Nick came to the Pentlands Book Festival to talk about the difference book festivals make to communities, and this is a perfect example. The community chatted about their own experiences and shone a light on how nice an initiative a book festival is for local people, giving something new from toddlers to adults, whether it’s researching an author, or buying a graphic novel for a grandchild and realising it’s a bit like theatre. It was a project by the community, for the community, and was a thriving success. As Booked! is set to roll out across the UK, we’re sure those 40 or so book festivals will be growing in number, with more and more communities coming together over an interest in and love of books.