Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Jews and Books

If it is late fall, it must be Jewish Book Season.

Every year towards the end of October, Jewish organizations around the country bring together dozens of Jewish authors for day-long book fairs. In California, there will be at least three fairs happening almost simultaneously, one in Contra Costa County, one in San Francisco, and one in Los Angeles.

It’s no coincidence that the fairs happen at the same time because the events are partially orchestrated by a group called the Jewish Book Council. The group was founded in 1925 by a Boston librarian who arranged a display of Jewish-themed books and called the event Jewish Book Week. The idea was formalized and retooled, and today a subsidiary of the Council, known as the Jewish Book Network, helps coordinate 70 book fairs around the country featuring 160 authors. It’s a $3 million industry and the major way for those with Jewish-themed books to reach a targeted audience.

That makes the Book Council’s director, Carolyn Starman Hessel, one of the most powerful people in publishing, even though she has nothing to do with the actual printing of any book. If the axiom that Jews buy a lot of books is true (and I’ve heard that while Jews only make up 2% of the population, they buy 20% of the hardcover books) Hessel is a woman who influences the reading choices of thousands of Jews around the country. If she likes your book, she stands behind your book. A lot of people listen to her opinion.

It used to be that Hessel would go to Book Expo America and interview various authors to see if they would be appropriate for Jewish Book festivals. Then she would talk to coordinators around the country and recommend names and titles for the book fairs.

That informality is long gone. Now authors literally audition for a slot in a Jewish book festival in a process that Rachel Donadio of the New York Times Book Review described as “a combination of “The Gong Show” and speed-dating.” Each year, authors get about two minutes to pitch their book and convince Hessel and other book fair coordinators that they will entertain and inform audiences. While subject matter counts, so does an author’s ability to deliver a rousing talk.

Hessel’s “tours have also helped kick-start the careers of promising young novelists including Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer,” writes Donadio.

“Hessel has an “uncanny ability” to get people enthusiastic about Jewish books, said Krauss, who first went on a Jewish Book Network tour to promote her 2002 novel, “Man Walks Into a Room.” “If ‘Finnegans Wake’ were even a little Jewish, Carolyn could convince thousands of people in J.C.C.’s across the country to read it.”

I met Hessel a few years ago as she accompanied two of her favorite authors on a small book tour. Samuel Freedman, whose most recent book was Who She Was, a memoir about his mother, and Ari Goldman, who had just written Living a Year of Kaddish, toured synagogues and community centers on the West Coast. Hessel, a diminutive, well-coiffed woman, was there in the audience, cheering them on and promoting their books.

The San Francisco Jewish Community Center BookFest tour will be on November 4th at the Jewish Community Center on California Street in San Francisco. It is free, and will feature many stellar authors, including Michael Chabon, Shalom Auslander, whose new memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, is drawing rave reviews, (and was strongly promoted by Hesel) Dalia Sofer, who wrote The Septembers of Shiraz, Steve Almond, author of Candy Freak and the essay collection Not That You Asked, and Michael Wex, who is following up his hit book Not to Kvetch with Just Say Nu.

The Contra Costa County Jewish Book and Art Festival runs Oct. 30 through Nov. 15 and features KQED host Michael Krasney and Berkeley author Peggy Orenstein, among many others.

In Los Angeles, the University of Judaism is hosting the first Celebration of Jewish Books from Nov. 5th-11th. Authors include Michael Chabon, Tony Kushner, Daniel Handler, and Daniel Mendelsohn, among others.

Check out Jewish book events in your area.


James G. Leventhal said...

I had NO idea...all very interesting. And I read Shalom Auslander's book a bit -- a very little bit -- out-loud with my dad back east and what I sampled left me quite impressed! Nice to know he is coming to SF - thanks for spreading the word.

Ilana DeBare said...

Moving over to Jewish magazines... I just received a copy of the first issue of a new magazine called Jewish Living. It's not a literary mag, more of a lifestyle magazine a la Parenting, Cooking Light etc. It has recipes, parenting tips (from Wendy Mogul's excellent Blessings of a Skinned Knee), an essay on young Jews getting decorative tatoos by the grandson of non-voluntarily tatooed Holocaust surviveors, and a feature called "Two Jews, Three Opinions" that features essays on "holiday envy" by Erica Jong and Ayelet Waldman. Haven't read that part yet...