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Sunday, October 09, 2005

A book lover's guide to the Ottawa International Writers Festival

For those who missed my first Ottawa Citizen column two weeks ago here it is. October 9th's installment appears today on page C9.

By John W. MacDonald
(Appeared originally in The Ottawa Citizen September 25, 2005)

A book lover's guide to the Ottawa International Writers Festival

There is no better season than Fall. Yes, the weather's fine, the leaves are pretty, but to a book lover, Fall means one thing: Book Festival Season. True, it can be said there is also a spring season for books and the summer for beach reading, but neither match the size or scope of autumn's gamut of literary events. Just as spring brings bears out of hibernation, likewise, authors and poets come out of seclusion in the Fall. How does a reader prepare for the literary experience? This is a question I have thought about for some time. Every year I promise to exercise more and every year I fail. But do as I say and not as I do, the saying goes. I do try to get out every (other) day for brisk walks to build stamina. Anyone can enjoy the first or second night of readings, it's the last few evenings of an eight-day festival that test your metal. Of course mental alertness is equally as important.

Yawning during a reading is generally frowned upon, especially if you get caught. I always have a glass or bottle on hand to raise to my mouth - it need not be full - to feina big gulp. Thus concealed, I can yawn at leisure. As for diet, for the past month or so I've been eating a lot of homemade soup with rice noodles. Is it good for my health? I guess so. I don't really know. In reality, I've been doing so to save money for the books I am about to buy. My version of the Ramen Book Diet. I've lost 10 pounds.

I have also learned to dress appropriately. Comfort is key. It isn't a fashion show - you're a member of an audience in a darkened room. Bring a jacket, even it it's 30 degrees outside. It's not to wear, it's to hang on your chair: a generally agreed upon convention that signals that this seat is your turf. At some popular events, it may be necessary to mark your spot early and overtly. Arrive early. This way you'll have your choice of seating.

Prepare. Stamina is only achieved by training. Find a back pack. Beg, borrow or steal from the kids, if necessary. Fill it with your heaviest books: fiction, non-fiction or self-help, it does not matter. Avoid coffee-table books, which are bulky. Encyclopedias or large dictionaries will suffice. I recommend the recently published two-volume set of An Irish History of Civilization by Don Akenson and Gordon Sheppard's HA!: A Self Murder Mystery. Both are published by McGill-Queen's University Press. For good measure, include the hardcover edition of Ann-Marie MacDonald's The Way The Crow Flies or any Rohinton Mistry novel. You get my drift. Bricks would work, of course, but books are more intellectual.

Once fully loaded, practice slinging the bag without damaging your shoulder or the person near you. It's a skill, develop it. Walk the neighbourhood to get a feel for the weight and soon enough you'll develop stamina. Before the event, ensure there is ample space in your bag. By all means, take as many books you already own to get get signed. But leave some room because there'll always be more you want to purchase at the event. Besides, if you forget your jacket, a backpack will serve to save your seat while you are on a beverage or book run.

The 9th Annual Fall Edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival runs Sept. 29 to Oct. 6 at the Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington St. Tonight is also a time to celebrate the 25th annniversary of the Sasquatch Literary and Arts Performance Series at Royal Oak II Pub. I hear Black Forest Cake will be served at intermission. Will the temptations never cease?

John W. MacDonald works in Ottawa and can usually be seen, but not heard, where authors congregate. Read his weblog at


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