When 8,500 people descended on the Portland Art Museum for the revived Wordstock Book Festival in 2015, the message to its new organizer, Literary Arts, was clear: Portlanders love to get their read on, and Wordstock — missing in action for more than two years — had not been forgotten.
Founded in 2005 by local writer Larry Colton, the annual festival always featured an impressive lineup of local and national authors and a book fair. But Wordstock’s original incarnation, held at the expansive Oregon Convention Center through–2013, wasn’t quite the “metaphorical public square” that Literary Arts Executive Director Andrew Proctor, the festival’s new leader, had in mind.
Enter the Portland Art Museum. As the rebooted Wordstock’s primary venue, the museum provides a backdrop for art, history and culture to merge with conversation, books and ideas. With Literary Arts at the helm, the festival is now condensed into a robust one-day event (with partner events such as a Lit Crawl taking place throughout the weekend). The fest is packed with on-stage author conversations, interviews, panels, interactive Q + A’s, pop-up readings in galleries, teaching workshops, kids’ story times, live music, an expanded book fair and — in true Portland fashion — food trucks parked outside.
In short, Wordstock’s new iteration celebrates contemporary literature in a way that feels, well, contemporary.
“When you think of Portland’s profile, it’s a cool town with great food and wine and people who love to read and are serious about the arts,” says Proctor. “The idea that you can have a festival of books and ideas that’s incredibly fun to be at, all distilled into downtown with a huge book fair and an entire museum, for [the ticket price of] $15 — this is something that could only happen in Portland.”
So, which events did people line up for on Nov. 5, 2016? Sherman Alexie discussed his picture book Thunder Boy Jr. with Dave Miller of Oregon Public Broadcasting and novelists Yaa Gyasi and Colton Whitehead spoke about confronting the legacy of the slave trade in their recent works. What about hometown hero Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney and “Portlandia” fame) in conversation with novelist Jon Raymond about her bestselling memoir Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl? With more than 100 authors presenting on stage, there was an event (or several) for every kind of reader at any age.
Since attendance numbers in 2015 exceeded all expectations, Literary Arts doubled Wordstock’s seating capacity with six new venue partners in the South Park Blocks: The Old Church, Oregon Historical Society, Northwest Film Center and at Portland’5 Centers for the Arts’s Brunish Theatre, Winningstad Theatre and Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. More time was built between events, so guests weren’t forced to leave one stage early in order to rush to the next. That’s not to say you were guaranteed to see everything and everyone — crowds and lines are an inevitable part of a successful festival. But, as Proctor pointed out, the possibility of missing one event opens the door for catching another.
“Part of the value of the festival is you’re going to have an opportunity to discover so many different things that you didn’t expect to see,” he says. “That’s really exciting.”