City of Literature and Festivals: The Edinburgh International Book Festival

I’ve mentioned before that Edinburgh is a UNESCO World City of Literature. And that a great many of the greats of English literature have ties to Edinburgh. And that Edinburghers love reading. And that they have bookshops like Americans have Rite Aids. Well aware of its own literary character, Edinburgh also plays host to the International Book Festival every year.


The Book Festival coincides with the Fringe and the International Festivals, and it has just as much going on as far as events and things to do. This, quite frankly, makes it very difficult to be a twenty-something broke graduate student in Edinburgh. Usually, it works out just fine. But August has just left me realizing just how little disposable income I have and how I should have saved my pennies over the course of the year to be able to spend it all right now.

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I did a dangerous thing last Saturday (and last Tuesday, and again on Wednesday), and I wandered down to Charlotte Square. Normally a quaint and, for Edinburgh, modestly sized park at the end of fashionable George Street, Charlotte Square has been overrun by the bookworms and now serves as the main venue for the Book Festival. Tents surround the park, and each one serves as a theater for talks, lectures, readings, children’s events, book signings, and, of course, bookstores.

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I love book festival stores. They always stock books by whichever writers are going to make appearances at the event, so that if you forget your copy of your favorite David Baldacci novel at home, you can buy a new one before jumping in line to have him sign it (based on a true story). Or, you can do as I did and see that a very popular up-and-coming author who you’ve heard great things about is going to be doing a signing and buy a copy of their book just because you know it’s going to be special once you finally read that book. The Edinburgh Book Festival has actually done a wonderful job of arranging their bookstores, and each one has multiple endcaps which only have the latest books by the authors appearing at the festival that day.

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But the other thing that I loved about these book stores was that they had multiple ways of finding new books. They had a section in which all the books were arranged by genre and then author’s last name, as in a regular bookstore. They had a section where the books were grouped by publisher, so you could see who was doing what. They had a section devoted to individual current debates – i.e., a case labelled “Nasty Women” with books about women in public arenas, a case dealing with race relations issues, and a case dealing solely with the Islamic Enlightenment. No matter how you search for your latest and greatest bear-poking literature, you’ll find it.

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In addition to having multiple Paycheck Bermuda Triangles, where all of your money magically disappears and reappears as a stack of books in a complimentary canvas tote bag, the Book Festival arranges talks, readings, and signings by individual authors. I just attended a talk by Charlie English, author of The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures. Anyone who’s spoken to me in the past six months has heard me gushing about this book. This book has got everything: swashbuckling adventure, amazing cultures, and just enough Indiana Jones to bring it all together. Well, the author gave a talk about his research for this book and where the manuscripts he writes about are today. After his talk – which was quite good, by the by – Charlie English had a book signing. Unfortunately for me, my copy of the book was in Michigan at the time, and I showed uncharacteristic self-restraint in not buying another copy for him to sign and instead buying a completely new book.

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The Book Festival is also great in that it gives up and coming writers a chance to showcase their skills. Every morning, a new author reads one of their short stories and has the chance to chit chat with readers. This is one of those things that just wouldn’t happen at big chain bookstores, which like to see that an author is a sure thing before stocking their books. New writers have few chances to get exposure like this, and – here’s the really good part – the Festival book stores will stock their books, so that if you like what you hear at one of these readings, you can get a copy of their work for yourself. This is great for readers, who get to try something new and broaden their horizons a bit, but it’s also great for the literary world. These could be the next Hemingways, Atwoods, or Gabaldons, and this just might be the push they need to bring their talent out and make their work available for us.

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I’ve found the International Book Festival to have a magnetic effect. Even if you’re not a compulsive book buyer, as I am, there’s bound to be something for you. If you’re looking for new writers and want to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the literary world, this is the kind of even you need to keep an eye out for. If you’re just here for the fun, it’s worth a look just to see how Edinburgh does literature.


See for yourself what’s going on! Check out the International Book Festival’s lineup here.


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