If, as Stephen King says, “Books are a uniquely portable magic,” Iowa City is about to get more magic then it can handle. The Iowa City Book Festival expands to over a full week this year, running October 8th through October 15th. The festival is organized by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature, the only of 20 cities of literature located in the United States. The full schedule is online, and since this is a travel site, I will focus on weekend events when working folks like me have more of an ability to attend.
In my personal reading, I gravitate toward literary fiction, but when this festival comes around each year, interestingly enough, I get most excited about the offerings of literary non-fiction. So I’ll highlight the events of interest in that arena. You, of course, can and should select your own favorite events.
Note that the festival is free and readings will be held in interesting, intimate settings where there will be opportunities to talk with authors and have your books signed.
On Friday, October 13, physician and poet Rafael Campo will read in the Old Capitol Senate Chambers. Campo will be in town as the keynote speaker for the College of Medicine’s "The Examined Life Conference". Many festival visitors will likely not have ever attended an event before in the Old Capitol, and it is indeed a treat.
Saturday, October 14, is when this festival kicks into high mode. Attendees are encouraged to bring gently used books, (any age appropriate) for donation to a local domestic violence shelter. Authors and booksellers will be lined up along the Pedestrian Mall, and enthusiasts may visit with them all throughout the day.
I will start my day at 10 a.m. in the Iowa City Public Library. There, Ted Genoways will read from “This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm.” Kathryn Gamble and Barbara Hall will read from “Women and the Land” and its portraits of 25 Iowa women shaping agriculture. You can’t get any more Iowa-ish than that.
Next, it’s a tough call because there is another great 10 a.m. presentation in RAD Inc. It’s called “Deconstructing Picture Books with Sarah Prineas and Michelle Edwards". The presenters will discuss their process as they deconstruct books like “Goodnight Moon,” finding new meaning and writing new stories.
For the 11:30 sessions, I will stay on at RAD Inc. to hear award-winning author Manuel Vilas read from his ovel “America.” But you couldn't go wrong if opted instead to hear Inara Verzemnieks read from her fantastic and heart-wrenching “Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming"-- at the public library.
I will delve into fiction at 1 p.m. I can’t wait to sit in the public library at hear Nathan Englander read from “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” and Chris Adrian read from “The Children’s Hospital.”
Then Jon K. Lauck, at 4:30 p.m., again in the public library, will help me get my Midwest on again as he reads from “From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Regionalism.”
If you are in Iowa City and you've never experienced a reading at the famed Prairie Lights Book Store, I encourage you to do so. I would choose the 10 a.m. session where literary sleuth Zachary Turpin, and Christopher Merrill, Director of the International Writing Program, alongside the seemingly peerless Walt Whitman scholar Ed Folsom-- present a long-lost Whitman book. Get there early! I bet the place will be packed.
The festival is worth staying the weekend for. So find a great hotel, Airbnb, or stay with a friend. In the evening, choose one of Iowa City’s many fine restaurants, then head back to your hotel to start reading one of your new literary discoveries.
I love writing about place. Especially Iowa and the Midwest, so I will start my Sunday morning with the 10 a.m. reading at the Iowa City Zen Center by Joe Kyugen Micharud as he reads “Prairie Wind: Prairie Poems with a Zen Flavor.”
Let's keep going. (You should already be wearing comfortable walking shoes.) You’ll be all set to take in an hour-long walking tour of Iowa City literary history. And there is a lot of that!
2 p.m. will lead me back at RAD Inc. for a senior poetry reading group called "Read Aloud". The group will be reading from political poems. In our divisive times, this poetry might just be important.
I will conclude my experience of the festival with Kenneth Whyte’s biography of Iowa boy Herbert Hoover, titled “Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times.” Incidentally, the Hoover Museum and Library is just miles away. If you carve a couple open hours in your festival schedule, you could definitely hop into a car (hopefully yours) and visit it.
You'll head home early Sunday evening, perhaps a little fatigued but definitely feeling exhilarated. As these Iowa days get shorter and the nights chillier, you should have assembled over the weekend a robust reading list that you can devour through the coming seasons of falling leaves, bonfires, snowfalls, blizzards, and then the always highly anticipated return of spring.
Photo credit: Patrick Muller