For any obsessive reader, Edinburgh is a great place to be in August. The Edinburgh International Book Festival, now the largest of its kind in the whole world, transforms Charlotte Square into a different world. Or different worlds really as the subjects covered are so varied. Several years ago I was having a discussion with someone about travel and they were surprised that we hadn’t been to lots of different countries as a family. My reply included the observation that I had been to a whole host of countries, at least in my imagination, thanks to reading books set in those countries. Stephen King (you can either like or loath what he writes about, but he’s an extraordinary writer) summarises what writing is about in his book On Writing as “writing is telepathy”. Great writers take you to that different place, that different time, and you come away with a different perspective on something.
This year’s Book Festival was a bumper one for me. There are always going to be some events where it just doesn’t quite work. I find it helps if the author attending actually wants to be there, or gives some indication of being interested in the subject which, given it’s normally something they’ve written about, shouldn’t be that difficult. You would think. Fortunately that was the first event I went to this year and I’ve been to enough to know that some are better than others. The final day was probably the one which stood out for me, both for the quality and the variety. The common link I took from the three events I went to (who says Mondays are the worst day of the week?) was the theme of change.
It started with Joseph Stiglitz. Nobel laureate (economics), adviser to Bill Clinton, on more committees than I could even have imagined existed. And such a big name that the press were there in force, putting rather more weight on some of his comments than on others. What attracted me to his session in the first place was his premise that technology has not made society better off. But the main point I took from him was that the economic benefits of technology have increasingly been flowing to a very small elite rather than being dispersed more widely, increasing the inequality in society that we can see all around us. Think of the now billionaires who started Amazon, Google, Facebook et al. The obvious (his judgement) point is that if the population as a whole does not benefit from the value created, the non-elite have less money to spend, therefore can buy less, therefore everyone loses. My practical conclusion – next book in the “I need to find more time to read all this stuff” pile. And yes, I do get the irony that I include a link to the book on Amazon.
Next up was the event I had been most looking forward to. Currently, if I had to do a Desert Island book, it would be Berlin: Imagine a City by Rory Maclean. I read this book in not many hours just before I went to Berlin in spring and was struck by the variety of ways he tells the stories of Berliners over several centuries, mixing fiction and non-fiction forms beautifully. But it was much more personal than that for me. I think he recognised two things. He wrote about people who have imagined a Berlin which did not exist at the time, or – while living in Berlin – themselves as someone they were not yet. They were not all born in Berlin, but they are all Berliners. And he sees the power of change that Berlin not just represents, but is. The city has reinvented itself – sometimes of necessity – so many times and it continues to change. And there is something in Berlin that can allow those of us who spend enough time there to change ourselves as well. My favourite factoid from the book (I know, I’m trivialising it somewhat) – the GB team in the 2012 Olympics entered the stadium to David Bowie’s Heroes. A song that Bowie wrote in Berlin while he was reinventing himself. And a song that is about the Berlin Wall. Yes, I really can find a connection to East Germany in anything… (helped this year by going to hear Maxim Leo talk about his book about his family growing up in East Germany, with stories that you wouldn’t believe if they weren’t true).
And what better way to finish than with Michael Rosen talking about why books are important. For me, books help me to gain a new perspective, a different point of view, to see things through someone else’s eyes. And they help me to change.
The other change this book festival brought with it was the absence of Derek Landy, and the first time in years that we haven’t been able to get the next instalment in his Skulduggery Pleasant (if you have to ask…) books before its general release. But hey, it’s out on Thursday – and goes straight to the top of the reading list. At least when the girls go to bed and I can get it off them. I should have taken a holiday on Friday…