Claire Messud

Wordstock 1: stuffed grandmothers, E.B. White, and collective desires

This year, Portland's literary extravaganza has the fervor of an evangelical revival. In fractious times, maybe that's a good thing.

In a Paris Review interview in 1969, when asked about the role of the writer, E.B. White famously answered: “A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge.” Despite his use of the male-centric pronoun, Mr. White’s sentiment seems to hit on something vital and true, and might also explain the 10,000 or so people lined up at various venues around the Park Blocks last Saturday for Portland’s annual book festival, Wordstock. This turnout, larger than in years past, felt hopeful somehow. Our collective desire to enter into those conversations between reader and writer, particularly on Veterans Day, to examine the role of narrative and history and words— that our curiosity is so intact— went a little way toward fortifying against what recently feels like a never-ending assault of troubling news.

E.B. White, with his dog Minnie: a spirit, hovering over Wordstock. Photo: Tilbury House Publishers

And, really, there’s no denying that times are troubling. This came up repeatedly in discussions throughout the day. What also came up is that times have always been troubling for somebody, depending on the happenstance of your birth. Given the peril of our planet, the unearthing in recent days of the uglier sides of human nature, and the anxiety that still lingers after last year’s election, maybe we can just agree that times are even more troubling for more people. Perhaps this can account for the size of the crowd and the quite-audible fervor that emanated from it as people stood in line for one of the headlining events, Ta-Nehisi Coates in conversation with Jenna Worthman of the New York Times Magazine at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Continues…