The sixth annual Morristown Festival Books was eclectic, provocative and, for many, inspiring.
Audiences packed downtown churches, the Morristown & Township Library and the Mayo Performing Arts Center to hear 50 authors discuss everything from the Oxford comma and ballpark architecture to America’s political and racial divide, rising sea levels at the Jersey Shore, and the ethical quandaries of designer babies.
Friday’s keynote talk–former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara on American justice in the era of Donald Trump–and Saturday’s closing “Pitchapalooza,” featuring one-minute book pitches by aspiring writers to an expert panel, attracted crowds paying $20 to $55 per ticket.
Everything else, including a KidFest with children’s authors, was free, thanks to festival sponsors.
Attendance keeps growing with the Festival’s stature, said Festival board member Karen Gruenberg.
“Authors want to come here. They know they’re well treated. It’s a festival that’s local, but also global in nature,” she said.
Jean Kwok, who traveled from the Netherlands to promote her novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee, seconded that.
“One of the things I really love about this festival is they really talk about supporting the authors,” Kwok said in the book-signing tent, on a sunny October morning where sweaters were unnecessary.
A HALF CENTURY BEFORE JACKIE ROBINSON…
Gina Bullock brought members from her Newark-based Major Taylor Cycling Club of New Jersey to hear Michael Kranish share highlights from The World’s Fastest Man, his book about a late-19th century bicycle racer who was America’s first African American sports superstar.
Major Taylor dominated a sport so dangerous that Jack Johnson switched to boxing. And racial indignities were so harsh, Taylor tried lightening his skin with a toxic commercial potion that inflicted hellish pain.
“I though I was going to die… Never again would I let someone try to make me something I am not,” Taylor resolved, according to Kranish, an award-winning political reporter for the Washington Post.
His talk was dedicated to the late Marty Epstein, founder of the Garden State Fondo biking event and the local Marty’s Reliable Cycle franchise. His son, Jesse Epstein, introduced Kranish.
Afterward, Bullock and her club took a 30-mile bike ride with cyclists from Marty’s.
“We’re trying to make everyone aware of the struggles Major Taylor had to go through,” Bullock said. “We’re proud to be a part of Major Taylor’s history, and are particularly proud to bring cyclists of color into the sport.”
Ellen Sharpe of Kinnelon and Linda Couch of Morristown were delighted to meet Jean Kwok.
Kwok’s humorous talk “makes me want to be a better reader,” Sharpe said.
The homemaker only started appreciating fiction a couple of years ago. She reports that its more relaxing than her former diet of biographies and history.
“To hold history in your head, all the facts—John Adams, Ron Chernow’s book Hamilton—it’s not conducive to a relaxing way to end your day,” Sharpe said.
Couch said the festival would inspire her to write, if she had the knack. “No one else wants me to sing, either,” she joked.
Kwok’s advice to aspiring writers: Don’t take critics too seriously.
“It’s really important to listen to your own deepest gut feeling,” she said. “On the one hand, be open to criticism. But you must do everything to keep your spark alive, and not kill it with editing. Believe in yourself, keep that spark alive. If you don’t believe in yourself, who else will?”
‘“BOOKS ARE AN AMUSEMENT PARK. KIDS SHOULD CHOOSE THE RIDES.’
At the festival’s KidFest, author and illustrator Jerry Craft explained how he wanted New Kid, his latest work, to dispel stereotypes. He grew up in New York as a black child in a brownstone, not a project.
“The only drive-bys we had were Mister Softee,” he said.
Author and NPR Morning Edition contributor Kwame Alexander was a huge hit with all ages at Kidfest.
Ten-year-old Keira Rivera, who came all the way from Burlington County, was aglow after hearing Alexander’s talk.
“Books are an amusement park, and kids should choose the rides,” she said, quoting him.
Kay Wilson Stallings brought her son Corteze, 13, from Brooklyn to see Alexander, a New York Times best-selling author of 32 books, including The Crossover (ages 10-12) and The Undefeated (ages 6-9). They were in awe of his perseverance.
“He was rejected 26 times,” Stallings said.
After meeting Alexander in the book tent outside the Presbyterian Parish House, Ramona Burton did a little dance.
“I’m so excited!” said the school board member from Newburgh, NY. She hopes to recruit Alexander to talk in her schools.
Burton brought her grown daughter, Noel Williams, and family friend Benilda Jones, a life coach who appreciated Alexander’s example: “Through whatever, you can rise above.”
Nearby, Stacy Camillo of Levittown, PA, whipped out her camera for a selfie with Katherine Arden, who was signing copies of The Winter of the Witch.
“I’ve read her series twice. It’s based in Russian fairy tales and folklore. My great-grandfather immigrated from Russia. I’m finding it very interesting,” Camillo said.
Arden’s talk convinced 9-year-old Claire Palumbo of Madison to ask her mother Jackie to buy the author’s new novel for her.
“We come every year. The festival’s given us new ideas of books to introduce,” the mom said, glancing down at her son James, 5, sprawled with a stack of new books. “He’s a happy camper.”
SURGERY FOR RACISM
Racism should be treated like cancer.
So began one of the weekend’s most provocative sessions, by Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist.
Kendi, his wife and his mother all have fought cancer in recent years. The disease is treated via surgery, he said, and by flooding the body with antibodies.
Similarly, citizens should remove racist policies, and flood the country with antiracist ones to prevent racism from recurring. America’s survival depends on this, said Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.
There is no middle ground, he insisted.
“If we’re doing nothing in the face of racism, we’re being racist,” he told moderator Kali Gross, a Rutgers history professor.
Elites, black and white, have contributed to the problem by attempting to assimilate and “civilize” blacks via mentorships and cultural programs—instead of ending policies that rig the game against African Americans, Kendi said.
Racist policies ultimately hurt white people, too, he contended.
States that have rolled back gun controls–ostensibly for protection against blacks– are seeing spikes in suicides-by-handgun among white males, Kendi said.
Defenders of Confederate statues forget that those leaders brought about a civil war that killed more white people than any conflict in U.S. history. White supremacists who revere Hitler forget he was responsible for the deaths of millions of whites, he continued, describing anti-black policies as anti-human.
“It’s an ideology that’s literally threatening human existence,” Kendi said.
Asked what single change would make the biggest impact, he answered free health care. Many people of color lack access to quality care, he said.
An end to political race-baiting also would help, Kendi suggested.
“What would Donald Trump do if he didn’t traffic in racist ideas? He wouldn’t even have words to speak,” he said, to applause from the predominantly white audience that filled St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
Americans should re-examine their us-against-them mindset, Kendi advised.
“People are so worried about what they’re going to lose, instead of what they’re going to gain” from equitable policies.
“We have to imagine a different kind of country. The single governing ideology that distinguishes America from others is fear.”
MAKE MY EMBRYO A GENIUS, PLEASE
Be careful what you wish for–especially if it’s better living through genetics.
That was the gist of Carl Zimmer’s talk about his book, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Power, Perversions and Potential of Heredity.
Zimmer, a New York Times columnist and Radiolab contributor, traced how erroneous notions of heredity have had monstrous consequences–from institutionalization of “feeble minded” women at the Vineland Training School to Hitler’s eugenics-driven mass murder.
Over the last few years, scientists in China, Russia and the U.S. have begun exploring how to alter individuals’ genetic makeup, purportedly to eliminate diseases
But it’s possible such changes then could be passed to future generations, Zimmer said. Outcomes from combining CRISPR gene-modification technology with in-vitro fertilization cannot be predicted.
The moral questions are troubling, as well. If embryos can be tweaked for greater intelligence, will only the super-rich be able to crank out little Einsteins?
As companies such as 23andMe make decoding individual genomes cheap and ubiquitous, who ultimately will control this personal informaton?
Health insurance companies cannot deny coverage based on genetic information, Zimmer said. But suppose a prospective boss, concerned about controlling conpany health costs, requests your genetic profile before hiring you?
“There’s nothing on the books to prevent that,” Zimmer said. “We’ve got to get moving.”
RISING TIDES LIFT ALL HOUSES
Most climate experts believe a warming planet will raise sea levels and spawn increasingly violent storms.
That’s bad news for the Jersey Shore — and for taxpayers across the country, according to authors Andrew Lewis (The Drowning of Money Island) and Gilbert Gaul (The Geography of Risk).
After each hurricane, federal flood insurance pays ever greater sums to rebuild bigger, more expensive coastal homes, which will cost way more to rebuild next time.
“Hurricanes are a form of urban renewal at the coast,” Gaul, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, told moderator Diana Olick of CNBC and listeners who filled the pews at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.
In the 1960s, Gaul said, the average place at the Jersey shore was a 600-square-foot summer cottage. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, ruined homes are being replaced by 3,000-square-foot year-round residences, he said.
Taxpayers are underwriting this, via federal flood insurance. Realizing they would take a bath, private insurers bailed from coverage of flood zones in the 1920s, Gaul said.
New Jersey has tried several times to buy out coastal homeowners, and create barrier zones to take the brunt of storms.
But local mayors always prevail, and members of congress won’t dare rile coastal voters by charging them the true cost of flood insurance, the authors said.
If scientists’ climate predictions are accurate, properties valued at $3 trillion are at risk along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, Gaul estimates.
Some 13 million residents may need relocation, Lewis added. Where will they go?
“North Dakota,” Gaul suggested.