The Wisconsin Book Festival, an annual fixture of the autumnal arts-and-culture calendar for the past 11 years, has undergone a major change in the past 12 months.
Like the new downtown library where it will largely be housed, it’s built on the same basic structure but has had an overhaul.
The Madison Public Library Foundation took over the festival’s operations in January and brought new director Conor Moran on board in March to assemble a slate of events that Moran describes as “a rekindling of the festival atmosphere” after the massive growth of the past decade.
So what’s going to be different this year? To start with, Moran says this year’s schedule is a bit smaller-scale compared to festivals past. “Last year, they were incredibly ambitious and had over 140 events,” says Moran. This year’s fest features about 50 events over four days, from Thursday through Sunday. Thirty-three of those will take place at the new downtown library, with others being held just across the street at the Overture Center.
“Every event is within walking distance of the library,” says Moran, enabling festivalgoers to “spend the entire day” at the festival with ease. “One of the things we really wanted to do was give the festival not just a philosophical home, but a geographical home.” He's hoping the more manageable size will give book lovers the chance to hit all the events they want to see without feeling rushed.
The festival kicks off Thursday with, among other events, a talk by University of Chicago professor and author Emily Oster, whose book “Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong – and What You Really Need to Know” (11:30 a.m., Central Library) is intended to provide expectant women with the information they need to make informed choices about childbirth.
That evening at 7 p.m., a keynote by renowned academic and political figure Bill Ayers at the Overture Center will spotlight his book “Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident.”
High School Friday will see around 150 local students coming into the library for a full school day of events including the First Wave Hip Hop Arts and Learning Community and the Library as Incubator Project starting at 9 a.m.
That evening is when, as Moran says, “the festival really gets going.” At 5 p.m., the Great Dane Brew Pub hosts an event for “The American Craft Beer Cookbook” by John Hall. U.S. UNICEF director Caryl Stern will talk about her book “I Believe in Zero,” (7 p.m., Central Library) which chronicles her organization’s worldwide efforts to reduce preventable deaths of children.
Techies will want to catch WIRED and New York Times Magazine contributor Clive Thompson talking about his book “Smarter Than You Think,” which posits that technology is making us better thinkers. Thompson will speak at 5:30 p.m. at the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery – check back to captimes.com later this week for an interview with Thompson.
At 8:30 p.m. Friday, Welsh author Jon Ronson (“The Men Who Stare at Goats,” “The Psychopath Test”) will make a rare appearance in America to discuss his new book “Lost at Sea.” Read the Wisconsin State Journal’s interview with Ronson, who seems surprisingly nervous that he won’t draw a good crowd.
Saturday highlights include author Steven Jimenez, whose 13-year-long investigative study, “The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard,” (7 p.m., Central Library) is a deep dive into a crime, its motives and the personalities surrounding it.
Also on Saturday, Madison poet Dale Kushner will talk about her first novel, “The Conditions of Love,” at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Central Library. Read our interview with Kushner here.
And Sunday’s schedule is capped off with author Alan Salkin’s tell-all, “From Scratch: Inside the Food Network,” which Moran describes as “not a typical book for the festival — or a typical book at all.” Salkin will talk at 2:30 p.m. at the library.
The schedule features more nonfiction than years past, which Moran describes as a bit of a happy accident. The 2013 festival features “a lot of things that are going to engage new audiences” and “genres of books that haven’t gotten the spotlight.” So while the schedule is less ambitious, it covers diverse ground, expanding far beyond literary fiction and poetry.
“Author events are a really special type of event,” says Moran. “They touch the audience in a different kind of way.” He cites the investment of time readers make in books as a factor.
Moran has high hopes that this year’s festival will signify both a new beginning and a continuation of a legacy. “The foundation is committed to funding the festival for the next three years,” he says, and will continue to stage author events throughout the year. “I would actually like to make the event series as robust as possible so that it’s not a shock when (big-name) authors come to town."
A full schedule of events for this year’s Wisconsin Book Festival can be found at wisconsinbookfestival.org.
Rob Thomas contributed to this story.