My day at the Printers Row Lit Fest

Every year I try to make it to the Printers Row Lit Fest. It’s a great way to meet fellow book nerds, find great deals on used books, and sometimes attend a lecture or two. This year, I also met up with a good friend of mine from my graduate school days who also loves books. I bought some books, had some laughs, at a messy torta, and heard some great speakers.

I attended a discussion with Chip Kidd in the morning. It was held at the Harold Washington Library Center on State and Van Buren. I love the Harold Washington Library, and recently got a library card. When I was in junior high, as part of Junior Great Books, we took a field trip to the Harold Washington Library to check out the Winter Garden and to look through the stacks.

Anyways, the talk with Chip Kidd was held in the basement in one of the library’s multi-purpose room. Kidd was essentially delivered a condensed version of his TED talk, with moderator Mike Phillips, from the Chicago Tribune asking questions. I got interested in Chip Kidd’s work mainly because my partner is a big fan of his, and passed on Kidd’s novel The Cheese Monkeys. Though Kidd is known more for his design work, he’s a hilarious author, and I urge people to buy The Cheese Monkeys, it’s a great book

One of Kidd’s most notable works is the iconic t-rex silhouette from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Kidd talked through the process of how he settled on the image:


He talked of going to the museum and doing research. What was funny – but in a galling kind of way – was when he went through slides of Jurassic Park merchandise once the films came out – toys, mugs, t-shirts. He also showed us slides of parodies. I write “galling” because even though the film’s legendary logo was Kidd’s work, he didn’t own the rights to it.

Kidd’s talk comprised of him showing us important works through his career and then discussing how he came up with the designs and then how he followed through on the ideas. Another important work of his was the cover for Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which was inspired by classical studies, because the characters in the novel were classical scholars.

The Secret History, front cover.jpg

The first edition hard cover of The Secret History has an acetate slip cover, which was inspired, in part, by the practice of wrapping antique books in acetate sleeves by antiquarian book sellers. He also went into detail about his work for Only What’s Necessary, a book about Charles Schulz’s Peanuts character.

The story behind this cover is sweet. Kidd saw a letter written on Schulz’s personal stationary with an image of Charlie Brown and his dog, Snoopy. The note was a thank you Schulz was writing to a young fan who sent Charlie Brown a Valentine because Charlie Brown never got Valentines. Kidd looked at the image of Charlie Brown – particularly his face, and thought to do an extreme close up, but not too close to render the image too abstract or obscure. It was just enough to make the work interesting, but still instantly recognizable.

Because the talk was so brief, we didn’t get a chance for a lot of questions, and my partner wasn’t able to ask his. We grabbed our copy of The Cheese Monkeys, and waited in line. Funny story, as we were making our way to the back of the line, I slung a tote back over my shoulder, accidentally elbowing the person behind me. I quickly turned around to apologize, and was face-to-face with Chip Kidd, who shrugged off my faux pas and graciously accepted my apology. As we shuffled in the line closer to Kidd’s table, I happened to see R.L. Stine wander around with a volunteer, looking for his room (which quickly got mobbed by lots and lots of kids)

Another funny Chip Kidd story. So before we made our way to the library for the talk, we stopped at Dollop, a local coffee shop just across the street from the library. As we took our place in line, I looked up and saw Kidd with Mike Phillips wait in line for their coffee, too. Kidd was wearing a snazzy outfit: a great blazer and wonderful spectacles, and was deep in conversation with Phillips. I debated whether to politely interrupt them to express how much I enjoyed The Cheese Monkeys, but decided that there is no such thing as interrupting someone politely, so I just kept mum.

After the Chip Kidd talk, my partner and I made our way to the lit fest. There were tents erected in Printers Row, and people were milling around each tent, looking at what was for sale. I didn’t have anything in mind, nor was I look for something in particular. Last year I stopped at Edible Type, a fabulous bookseller specializing in cook books and food writing. The Edible Type table had some Nigel Slater books that were reasonably priced, but I didn’t buy them because they were too big (they looked like coffee table books). I love Edible Type and shop there online.

Because it was so hot, my partner ran back to the library to avail himself of its air conditioning and to work with the library’s 3-D printer. I met up with a good friend of mine with whom I went to graduate school. She’s an adjunct, teaching English at some suburban Chicago junior colleges. She has a deep love for mysteries and horror fiction, and we share an affection for Agatha Christie (though she doesn’t like Jane Austen, which still sends a pang in my heart). She was with her lovely friends and we went walking around, shopping and trying to stay cool in the nasty heat.

At four o’clock, I met up with my partner and we headed for Jones College Prep on State street to hear another talk, this time with Lindy West, Rebecca Traister, and LaShonda Katrice Barnett. The moderator was Greta Johnson from the WBEZ’s Nerdette podcast, and the topic was feminism. West, Traister, and Barnett all wrote books that touched on feminism. I finished West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman and was about half-way through Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.

I loved Shrill – it was funny, sad, and it really took on issues of body-shaming, rape culture, misogyny, and capitalism in a sharp, often hilarious way. West gained some notoriety for pushing back against the comedy world when it came to rape jokes – she appeared on W. Kamau Bell’s brilliant show Totally Biased and debated the issue with comic Jim Norton. I loved West from that moment on. In a chapter in Shrill, West, a humorist and comedienne herself who is married to a stand-up comic, writes about how the episode surrounding the rape joke controversy has tempered and dulled her relationship with comedy. That sentiment made me sad because comedy can be so empowering when done right, and as mindless escapism, there is no better tonic (Colleen Ballinger’s Miranda Sings has gotten me through the past couple days – I’ve been binge-watching her YouTube videos).

Traister’s book was more journalistic in tone, which made sense since Traister is a noted feminist journalist. She recently wrote a fantastic piece on Hillary Clinton for New York magazine, that really examined Clinton’s campaign and public image, and how politics, gender, and identity politics sometimes make for an oily mess. She also questioned why the media and voters seemed to prefer charismatic showmen to workhorses. I found All the Single Ladies interesting because it looked at how liberating singlehood can be for some women. I’m not done with the book, yet – I’m about half-way through, but I find the research fascinating, particularly when Traister looks at labor.

The third panelist was LaShonda Katrice Barnett, who wrote Jam on the Vine, an historical novel inspired by the works of civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells. Because I’m not an avid reader of contemporary fiction, I was not familiar with Barnett’s work, but I did buy it for my Kindle, as soon as the talk was over.

The talk was interesting – the topic of the word feminism came up, and how useful it is in our current times. Important issues were brought up of privilege and intersectionalism, and Barnett made some excellent points about how “feminism” often stood for white feminism, and left women of color behind. She also spoke about the rhetoric of feminism being about being “equal to men” but she pointed out that men of color experience a different set of oppressions, which requires a shift in the conversation about the goals of feminism. Barnett seemed to be more comfortable with the term “womanist,” which spoke to the particular set of gender-based discrimination that black women felt.

Because Barnett brought up the tension between mainstream feminism and women of color, West and Traister had to address some of the angst and ambiguity in the term. West, in particular, told an anecdote about her husband – Ahmaefule J. Oluo, who refused to have his wife take his name when the two got married. Being a black man, he had deep-rooted issues in the idea of “owning” someone, and was unhappy with the idea – West expressed that in some moments, she might’ve liked taking his name, but ultimately was satisfied. At the end of the anecdote, though, she highlighted the online debates that sprang up in which self-identified feminists tossed the issue back and forth like a football. West also brought up the issue of trans-exclusive feminists who refuse to embrace trans women as part of the movement. She recounted how she was in Glasgow in a women’s studies library, crammed with books, all about the diverse views of feminism, femininity, and gender identity. How could there be a line drawn in the sand with respect to trans issues, when the topic of feminism is so broad and complex. Traister then pointed out that feminism was never a monolithic thing – but a loud, messy, contradicting movement. She saw this as a strength because it proved that feminism is vital and alive and moving forward. It was a great point to make.

The whole talk flew by too quickly. Johnson brought up the election and asked the panelists if they’d be happy to Rip Van Winkle their way through the election and magically wake up on November 8 to the conclusion. The audience laughed – we shared in that dreaded anticipation of just how ugly it’ll get, especially given that one of the candidates is Donald Trump. Both Barnett and West voted to sleep through it – Barnett pointing out that even someone as illustrious and brilliant as Elizabeth Warren is having to fling mud herself. Traister, on the other hand, “wants to stay awake” because while she was worried about the nasty rhetoric that will inevitably pollute the airwaves, she also saw this election – and this time in history-  as vital and important, and was excited to be a witness to it.

I would’ve liked time to discuss the historical significance of this election. Traister wrote a book on the 2008 election, Big Girls Don’t Cry, which looked at how gender played a role in the campaigns – this was an election that had such important women players like Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama, Tina Fey, and Katie Couric. Traister does mention Clinton’s speech to Planned Parenthood, her first as the presumptive nominee for the Democratic party. What Traister found so important about the speech is that is signaled a hopeful break in the usual narrative of a progressive candidate shifting to the center once the general elections take place: in her speech to Planned Parenthood, Clinton calls for a comprehensive kind of social justice that incorporates race, gender, economy, and class (the significance of that speech becomes even more tragic now after the Orlando shootings because Clinton recalled the shooting of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs).

Because the talk went so long and there was only 45 minutes allotted for it, we only got to questions during the Q&A portion of the event. The second question was amazing, which I’ll get to in a minute. But the first question was a doozy, and illustrated the need for work by the women on the stage. A tall, wiry man rushed up to one of the microphones standing on the side of the aisles. He cleared his throat nervously and then referred to a spiral-ring notebook that was covered in pencil scribblings. He then started to read off what sounded like a manifesto of garbled talk. I couldn’t catch a lot of his rant, but it included his preference for Penthouse over Playboy, a lament for the availability of dominatrix versus sexual surrogates, Gloria Steinem’s name somehow landed in the muck of his sick mind. I looked on stage and saw the four women’s faces contorted in a mixture of pity and confusion. Members of the audience started to heckle the guy before folks started to demand he ask his question. A staffer ran to the guy and push him to ask a question or leave, and because he wasn’t allowed to finish his confused monologue, he shrugged and asked “What do you think of my sincere question?”

The second question worked as an elixir. The person asking the question was a young black woman who identified herself as growing up in a Pentecostal household. She was concerned about race and uplifting men of color, but not at the expense of women of color, queer folks, or disabled people of color. She wanted to know what the women felt about intersectionality.

The answers were interesting, Barnett’s being very incisive about how history – including the telling of progressive movements – is told through a male lens. She talked about how it’s a balancing act, and that it must be a “holistic” process to acknowledge the struggles of men who face oppression and discrimination, but not fall back into a default of the male voice.

We were a bit disappointed that we weren’t allowed more questions – especially since the first question was so odious, but on the plus side, the women were signing their books. I got Traister to sign my book, and when I got to West, I started blathering about my love of women in comedy. West was super-sweet – and I managed to croak out a semi-coherent sentence about my admiration for her appearance on Totally Biased. She sweetly thanked me and I was on cloud nine.

We didn’t stay for much longer at the fest. It was so hot, and we were very hungry, so we left. I had a great time, and cannot wait until next year. The books that I bought this time were:


  • The Lover by Marguerite Duras
  • Utterly Uncle Fred by P.G. Wodehouse
  • Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke
  • Goldfinger by Ian Fleming
  • The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball
  • Comfort & Joy by India Knight
  • Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers on Food edited by Peggy Wolff




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Filed under Book, commentary, Nonfiction, Writing

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