Texas Books, Texas Politics


Robert Caro

The Texas Book Festival, which ran over the weekend at the State Capitol in Austin, came directly out of politics -- thanks, in part to then-First Lady of Texas Laura Bush. And thanks, in part, to Austin itself and the Austin political-social types who continue to run it, the festival has always had a huge contingent of presidential biographers, state historians and political journalists, more than most literary shindigs, it seems. What can you say about a book festival that has seemingly had Texas Monthly political editor Paul Burka on some panel or other just about every year (not this time, thankfully)? it's a festival that always has sessions with titles (taken from this year's festival) like "Texas Political Giants" and "Memo to the President-Elect" and "Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln." Beyond the staples of any book festival -- popular novels, cookbooks, children's books, books on music and celebrities -- this has been the defining trait of the Austin fest.

So, initially, it was something of a surprise that on this weekend -- of all election-year weekends -- the Texas Book Festival definitely was not drawing the same size crowds, pulling the same political mojo, as in previous years.

Frankly, I find the Austin festival's focus on politics distracting at times, and its history of apparently avoiding the wealth of more academic literary types just north of the capitol at UT-Austin, a bit irksome. And don't get me started on the relationship between the Texas Book Festival and the state of the state's libraries. ("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.")

But I was there in 2000 when the festival was held during the tense election interregnum, when no one knew whether Gov. George Bush was going to be President George Bush, and the national media was out in locust-swarming numbers. Yet the governor still found time to pop in to the gala dinner, while frantically trying to halt the recount in Florida. The nervousness was palpable. Imagine anything as politically hard-knuckled happening at, say, the Los Angeles Book Fair. That year, Nicholas Lehmann, the New Yorker writer, Columbia journalism dean and author, expressed a widespread sentiment during one panel when he said he had just realized that he deeply valued our political system because it generally has guaranteed a stable transition of power. Unstable transitions can be really scary and very ugly.


Roy Blount, Jr.

Obviously, in comparison to that cliffhanger, any festival is going to seem far less fraught with tension and significance. And it's true that the authors who appear are often the luck of the draw -- whoever's on a book tour. There were certainly crowds this weekend to see a number of NPR and NPR-related authors, including  Roy Blount Jr. and Peter Sagal (both of Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me) and Scott Simon -- as well as satirist Christopher Buckley, whose recent departure from his father's conservative journal, National Review, because of his endorsement of Barrack Obama, provided one bit of up-to-date political newsiness. (Speaking of poliltical satire, my friend Sarah Bird provided one of the weekend highlights with her impersonation of Sarah Palin, as recounted in the Austin American-Statesman). And when it comes to presidential biographers, the winner of this year's Bookend Award was none other than the dean of the genre, Robert Caro, author of perhaps the greatest Texas political biography, The Path to Power, the first volume of his profile of LBJ.

But previous festivals have seen huge, turn-away audiences for the likes of Barrack Obama himself, as well as Bill Clinton, and even the first President Bush (a bit of family nepotism that, I admit, had my eyebrows raised to full height). At the same time, in past years, the big-name popular authors have included the likes of Frank McCourt, Michael Connelly, Kinky Friedman and Robert James Waller (shudder).

The fact is that this election year, all the political big guns seem to be on the stump, for obvious reasons (revealingly, Clinton, Obama and President Bush all appeared in what were essentially non-campaign years for them). And when it came to non-political authors, the festival did get the nothing-to-sneeze-at Richard Price, Rick Riordan, and T. Boone Pickens, among others, plus a number of other writers, like Sarah Bird, who drew full houses in the smaller venues.

But with an era-defining election looming this week, the buzz was definitely elsewhere. And the crowds weren't the same.

OK, so there was also something else going on that might have drawn Austinites away, something about an unbelievably close UT-Texas Tech football match. But you can imagine how much attention I paid to that.

Roy Blount image from wikimedia, Robert Caro from nndb.com

November 3, 2008 10:50 AM |



Best of the Vault


Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on November 3, 2008 10:50 AM.

book/daddy knows an 'older genius' -- and it's not himself was the previous entry in this blog.

Literal-minded is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.