RECAP: The 30th Annual Southern Festival of Books

RECAP: The 30th Annual Southern Festival of Books

Thirty years ago, Humanities Tennessee (then known as the Tennessee Humanities Council) held the first Southern Festival of Books on the same Legislative Plaza in downtown Nashville where it happens today. In 1989 when the Festival began, the internet was not yet at everyone’s fingertips. We read books on paper, and we bought those books at bookstores or checked them out of a library. The purpose of the Festival was to introduce readers to new books and to authors, and to promote lifelong reading and learning.

That purpose has not changed. As the city skyline has exploded around the Plaza, and technology has changed the landscape of the publishing industry, the Festival’s striped tents and green banners still appear with the autumn leaves, bringing a reassuring continuity. Some of us read in different ways now—and the book signing line also often includes a quick selfie with the author now—but a love of books and learning remains our strong foundation.

This year we gathered October 12-14 and, with the help of numerous community partners and volunteers, brought 273 authors from all over the country to Nashville. We welcomed Deborah Plant, editor of Zora Neale Hurston’s Last Days of Barracoon, and Craig Johnson, author of the bestselling Longmire series. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor charmed a crowd of more than 1,000 at War Memorial Auditorium, signing books after and taking photos with children. Our friend Rick Bragg returned with a contemporary masterpiece and true cultural treasure, his new book, The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table. We partnered with WNPT for a spirited discussion on the national campaign to discover “The Great American Read,” in which millions of Americans voted. A drizzly Sunday did not stop the crowds from turning out for the authors of two of the year’s biggest blockbuster novels, Tayari Jones (An American Marriage) and Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere). CSPAN’s BookTV filmed sessions on Saturday and Sunday, available now at

Friday night, we held the 11th annual Authors in the Round dinner, which is a vital fundraising event for the Festival. This year’s co-chairs were Sondra Cruickshanks and Joanna Hall. More than 40 Festival authors were seated at tables with guests, and all enjoyed an evening of fine fare and conversation.

Our themed track “Democracy and the Informed Citizen” offered a wide range of conversations related to democracy, voting and the media. In partnership with the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities and with the support of the Mellon Foundation, this track each year gives us an opportunity to provide a more in-depth look at an important topic. These sessions included the recording of an episode of The Tennessean’s “Grand Divisions”  podcast.

For the second year, we were thrilled to welcome back Watkins College of Art with its Handmade and Bound festival, and as a partner in our children’s area. For the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter, we offered themed activities all weekend, a Harry Potter birthday party complete with cupcakes, and a Platform 9 ¾ backdrop suitable for selfies.

Over the past thirty years, we’ve depended upon community partners like Ingram Books and the Women’s National Book Association, and we’ve gained incredible partners like the Nashville Public Library and Parnassus Books. We are fortunate to have volunteers who have hosted sessions for many or all of the Festival’s thirty years, and we are equally fortunate to welcome new Nashvillians as Festival volunteers. These days, children whose parents used to bring them to the Plaza now bring their own kids, and former students in our summer Young Writers’ Workshops are on the program as published writers.

We are into multiple generations now, and we keep looking forward!