World Europe

The end of books? Tell that to 250,000 readers at the Hay Festival.

modes of thought

The festival, which ends on Sunday, attracts a quarter million bibliophiles every year, even as the libraries around Hay-on-Wye face constricting budgets and shorter hours.

A mother reads to her daughter at the local library in Talgarth, Wales, which is one of several in the region facing closure.
Sara Miller LLana/The Christian Science Monitor
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Caption

At the foot of the Black Mountains in Wales, in a dairy meadow filled with white tents, lies vibrant proof that the printed word is not dead.

The Hay Festival, one of the world’s great literary gatherings, is going stronger than ever in its 30th year. On Saturday, the official bookstore saw record sales, says store manager Gareth Howell-Jones – until it broke that record the following Sunday.

Book lovers in the thousands descend each year into this Welsh idyll of rolling green to scoop up the year’s hottest titles and listen to the authors who have penned them, in an event Bill Clinton once called the “Woodstock of the mind.” Filing into author talks and filling up their tote bags, the estimated 250,000 attendees of the Hay Festival are nothing if not a testament that printed prose is still very much in demand.

The festival is clearly a big, international affair. It has attracted writers from Arthur Miller to Toni Morrison and gives a sense of the “must reads” for the coming year. This year, top sellers include Neil Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology” – he signed books for three-and-a-half hours afterwards – and works by local author Horatio Clare, says Mr. Howell-Jones. There are always surprises, too. This year there was unexpected clamoring for the new book “Blitzed” by Norman Ohler, about drug consumption in Nazi Germany. And in perhaps a sign of how important the festival itself is on the literary circuit, the top seller so far is a retrospective collection of 30 transcripts of memorable Hay Festival conversations.

Amid book signings and author lectures, the temperature of the nation emerges. This year politics is center stage, falling amid turbulent geopolitics, and just days ahead of Britain’s June 8 general election. At one of the lectures, part of a series that asked authors to reimagine major institutions of the day, British-Bangladeshi author Tahmima Anam challenged the audience to consider a world without borders, which she says serve to magnify the “fear of the other.”

By the end of the lecture, the conversation touched on the Manchester bombing, terrorists, Syrian refugee children, Brexit, and the election of President Trump in the United States. Not everyone was pleased with Ms. Anam's ideas. But generally the festival exudes a certain liberal sensibility. Former US presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders will be attending the festival Saturday. When Anam announced that President Trump would opt out of the Paris climate agreement, news that broke moments before her lecture began, the audience let out an extended moan.

Yet it’s also a place where attendees come to challenge their views, says Fay Tennet, who works in security in London. Sitting on a grassy patch, she offers up her reading selection, on the Quakers, to back up her words. She says she has attended this festival a half dozen times because it is a haven for her. “Life is so frantic, and we live in our own little worlds,” she says. “Here you get to explore ideas you normally wouldn’t get to explore in everyday life.”

“It’s a really good place to have your thoughts nudged a little bit.”

A tough time for libraries

While the Hay Festival may restore faith that the technological age has not wiped out the love of ink-on-paper, other longtime rituals around reading are under threat: some, ironically, right in the Hay Festival’s front yard. Libraries around this region and country risk closure. Budget gaps have meant that anything seen as “non-essential” has found itself on the cutting block – including 11 of 18 libraries in this region, including the repository in Hay-on-Wye.

Dismayed locals formed the Hay-on-Wye Library Supporters (HOWLS) last October when the local council first announced the cuts, and they were able to stave off imminent closure. But it's unclear how long the library will remain intact. One plan is to move it into a new school under construction.

Its chances are helped by the fact that it sits next door to the Hay Festival, which publicly announced monetary support for the library this year. But the festival says it remains troubled by the library’s vulnerability. “If the ‘town of books’ is at risk, what hope does anywhere else have?” says Christopher Bone, publicity director for the festival. “The festival's financial support is a short-term fix for a long-term problem, which we will continue to seek solutions to within our community.”

Farther afield, communities are indeed grappling with how to keep their beloved repositories running. Just eight miles away, but in what feels a world apart from the frenzy of the Hay Festival, the tiny Talgarth library is on the threatened list too. Two years ago its hours were reduced by 20 percent, like others in the area. Officials are also eyeing a plan to relocate its services inside a new school.

Talgarth librarian Jan Shivel shows a can-do acceptance. She says she’s willing to do what it takes to keep it operating – whether that means downsizing, selling old libraries and moving into new premises, or rallying volunteers and community groups to take over. “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party, literally,” she says.

In Crickhowell, further south, the public library has been kept open through a partnership with the local high school. Across the country librarians are increasingly carrying out municipal services, like parking passes for the elderly, giving them another raison d’être.

'Someone should write a book'

On this particular day, a Wednesday, the Talgarth library is open from just 10 a.m. to noon. But in this period, residents are using computers and reading to children. One woman in gym clothes inquires about whether she can use the space to give a Pilates class to those with mobility limitations. And then, of course, are the books. Yvonne Van der Baan is checking out four thick works of fiction – she says she keeps non-fiction in her house as reference but depends on the library for the escapism she gets from novels. She guesses she’ll be ready to check out four more within three weeks. “Without the library, I wouldn’t exist,” she says.

Many attendees at the Hay Festival relate to that urge to devour texts and knowledge. “My daughter has wanted to come to the Hay Festival since middle school,” says mother Joey Comada, who is visiting from Los Angeles with her now-grown daughter. The two have bought tickets for nine talks in two and a half days.

The festival is also a place of encounter. Ms. Tennet says she saw a child reading a Jacqueline Wilson book on the lawn, right when the children’s author walked by. The mother nudged her child and they introduced themselves. “That child will remember that forever,” Tennet says.

That’s the role that Anita Wright, chairperson of HOWLS, sees for Hay-on-Wye’s local library too. “I feel quite passionately about libraries because they are sanctuaries for so many people,” she says. “And they are in many respects the last thing left that represents a local community.”

Tennet learned about library’s woes because she saw donation buckets that read “Save the Hay-on-Wye library.” From the vantage of the festival lawn, the battle verges on farcical, she says. “It’s outrageous,” says Tennet, adding without irony, “Someone should write a book about it.”