My Beef with the TBF
The last time I checked, the state of Texas ranked 47th in library funding, meaning there are worse places and quite a few that aren't much better, so just stop with the easy sneers at Texas. As a consequence, The Dallas Morning News regularly gave libraries its overflow of new books, several hundred a month. In fact, my former books editor, Cheryl Chapman -- whom I officially nominate for canonization as a saint, except she's not dead yet, so there might be a problem with the Vatican, although she's now living in Alaska, so I'm concerned that perhaps the problem will soon be solved -- tiny Cheryl would pack nine boxes of books into the back of her Rav-4, a mini-SUV, and drive three hours into the Texas hinterlands to a different small town library to give them that month's accumulation.
And those nine boxes were the only new books the library would get all year. Period. They couldn't afford to get any on their own. They were dependent on these Third World/hardcover CARE packages for any new acquisitions.
To this desperate situation, the Texas Book Festival has raised more than $2 million dollars -- in 12 years, or about $200,000 each year. The festival doles out the money it raises in grants of $2,500, money that can only be used to buy new books (and CDs and magazines) and not to repair the ruined boiler or the broken windows. Yet that $2,500 often doubles a library's entire budget for new purchases.
Even so, there are charity organizations that raise that much money in a month. The Tocker Foundation, a small family outfit in Austin that supports the festival, has given around $1 million to the state's neediest libraries -- every year. Its library-assistance grants go up to $50,000. But it's just this little family deal -- I happen to know the chairman simply because he was my dentist when I lived in Austin. If I'm going to go around beatifying candidates for library sainthood this morning, I should add the Tocker clan, and they certainly deserve one of the festival's Bookend Awards, if we're handing them out to people like Texas Monthly. The festival has had all this dress-up and music and media splash for more than a decade, and the Tockers quietly do more every year.
This is why I occasionally call the Texas Book Festival "what we have instead of decent libraries in this state." Laura Bush helped create it in the mid-'90s when her husband was governor, and it may last as one of the best things she's done for her former profession. It was cited as an example of George Bush's compassionate conservatism -- meaning he wasn't going to give the libraries any more state money. While Texas tries to lure high-tech businesses with offers of, yes, no taxes and low wages, Gov. Bush and his appointed successor Rick Perry aren't going to raise taxes to pay for a desperately needed service in a state whose illiteracy rate is going off the charts (U. S. Census figures peg Dallas with one of the largest percentages nationally of 16-to-19-year-olds who are not in high school and lack a diploma. That's Dallas, now imagine the rural counties down on the border). What we got instead of decent libraries was an elaborate, high-profile, feel-good, bipartisan social wing-ding that dribbles a couple thousand dollars to small-town book depositories lacking functioning heating systems or roofs that don't leak.
Saying all of this, I sound like an ungrateful, carping bastard, a charge with which I am not unfamiliar. I've been a professional critic for more than 25 years. So I hasten to add that the festival is quite wonderful in its way. This year, the entire weekend was worth it to meet the delightful novelists Patrick McGrath (Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now) and Colm Toibin (The Master) at a splendid dinner party at author Lawrence Wright's house and then to hear Mr. Toibin deliver a hilarious talk and a shivery reading from The Master. The festival has often given this book columnist the chance to meet and interview authors whose tours never go anywhere close to Texas. My compliments to festival director Clay Smith. I know that the authors who appear in any given year are often simply the ones available, but this year's list was rich with ones beyond the big, marquee names -- Barrack Obama, Gore Vidal, Frank McCourt-- writers such as McGrath, Toibin, Richard Ford, Marisha Pessl, Nicholas Lemann, Ben Fountain.
The TBF isn't near the size of the Miami Book Fair or the book fesivals in LA or New York, but one reason it's so impressive to visiting writers is that it's held in the State Capitol (and the adjoining Capitol Extension). This causes weary feet -- state law forbids commercial ventures on the Capitol grounds, so after each reading, the authors and the audiences must leg it a block or two away to buy and sign books. Do this all day, and you'll feel you've run the Runaway Scrape (a famous exodus in early Texas history).
But how often does an author get to stand at the grand podium in the august Senate or House chamber -- to stand where LBJ did, where Barbara Jordan did -- and deliver a speech to an eager crowd? They've never felt so important in their lives.
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