By Howard Pousner
It’s perfectly acceptable to simply show up at this weekend’s AJC Decatur Book Festival on the town’s historic square and see which direction the crowd takes you.
Some 70,000 people are expected over three days, starting with the keynote address by Jonathan Franzen (“The Corrections,” “Freedom: A Novel”) at Agnes Scott College tonight. Whichever way you’re carried, you’re likely to bounce off something literary and interesting.
But … while you don’t have to have a game plan for visiting the fest, please do not ignore this footnote:
1. Some idea of who you want to see and what you want to do at the DBF sure would help.
Even a minor amount of forethought will be rewarded many fold. At last count, 355 authors will appear on 20 outdoor and indoor stages scattered all around the pedestrian-friendly downtown. The big names include Diana Gabaldon, author of the best-selling “Outlander” novels; Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter David Finkel; and Atlanta novelist Emily Giffin (“Heart of the Matter”).
There’s also a wide array of fun events, including parades celebrating the children’s books “Llama Llama Red Pajamas” (PJ-wearing by kids is encouraged) and “Ladybug Girl”; performances of scenes from lit-leaning works by Theatrical Outfit and the Center for Puppetry Arts; and even a zydeco picnic dinner on Sunday.
And then there’s the Book Market and Street Fair of 160 vendors pedaling everything from obscure literary magazines to hard-to-find titles to leather book bags. (You’ll find the AJC’s booth there, as well, offering free keepsake photos and meet-and-greets with top authors.)
But here’s another footnote you should heed:
2. Some people see those orderly rows of booths and think that it’s another version of the ultra-popular Decatur Arts Festival over Memorial Day Weekend. It is not.
Treating the Street Fair like it’s the heart of the Decatur Book Festival is like going to the crafts booths at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival without hearing all those fantastic bands. This fest is all about the authors.
The DBF schedule is a monster, which makes the fest’s mascot, Bookzilla — a 30-foot inflatable version of which will stand tall behind the historic DeKalb County Courthouse — all the more appropriate.
So how do you get your head and hands around an event this far-ranging?
Start by plowing into the 28-page tabloid guide tucked inside many copies of last Sunday’s AJC and available all around Decatur. If you don’t have one handy, just go to www.ajcdecaturbookfestival.com.
You’ll find not only a comprehensive, stage-by-stage event schedule for both full days of street festivities, but also 14 program “tracks.” These tracks are helpful groupings of events around particular themes that may suit your interests, from Homegrown Goodness (knitting, canning, etc.) to Man’s Best Friend to Romance to Religion & Spirituality.
Here are more tips for experiencing the best of the fest, from DBF program director Thomas Bell:
Take MARTA. Parking is limited and the Decatur station puts you right smack in the middle of the fest.
Be open-minded. “I like to encourage people to check out authors they don’t know,” Bell said. You might discover someone whose work you’ll want to follow or be introduced to an interesting subject.
Author-spotting around town can be fun. The DBF feeds writers with gift cards to Decatur restaurants and pubs, so that stranger who asks you to pass the ketchup might just be a National Book Award winner.
Bring a camera. Kids of all ages like posing with the extremely green Bookzilla.
Bring your “A” game crossword puzzle skills. The AJC will have several giant ones posted around the fest, and solving them becomes a communal victory.
Check out the Atlanta History Center’s booth in the Street Fair, where you can find out about the third annual Big Read event launching in October, encouraging folks to revisit (or visit for the first time) Edgar Allan Poe’s classic stories and poems.
Speaking of Poe, the DBF will celebrate the 200th anniversary of “The Raven” author’s birth with a “POE Slam” starring some of Atlanta’s top slam poets. And the Center for Puppetry Arts will perform selections from “Tales of Edgar Allan Poe.”
Given the festival’s expansionist ways and this year’s plethora of Poe, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the DBF had put up a stage in nearby Decatur Cemetery.
“We actually had something for the cemetery that didn’t come through,” Bell admitted, allowing that it had to do with an unlikely combination of Poe, “Pride and Prejudice” and zombies. “We have a lot of crazy ideas every year,” Bell said. “Not all of them come through — or should, of course.”
Three ‘sleeper’ events
Bell says these shouldn’t be allowed to fly under the radar:
AJC Decatur Book Festival
Keynote address: author Jonathan Franzen. 8 p.m. today, Presser Hall, Agnes Scott College, College Avenue and South McDonough Street.
General information: Readings, signings, panel discussions, poetry, music and other performances, new and antiquarian book sales, children’s parades and other events. Free (except for Eddie’s Attic evening concerts, Sunday picnic dinner). Various locations in and around Decatur Square in downtown Decatur. 10 a.m.-6:15 p.m. Saturday, noon-5:45 p.m. Sunday. 678-534-8526; www.ajcdecaturbookfestival.com.