During the 30 years since committed literarian Mitchell Kaplan founded it, the Miami Book Fair has established itself as the preeminent bibliophile bacchanal in the States. It’s a stellar event, a place to knock heads with some of the best writers in the world — and enjoy the balmy weather just as winter begins to suck the sap out of the usual climates that harbor bookish types.
Except this year, the subtropics delivered torrential downpours. And I was coming from California, where, as your mother warned you, it never rains.
During the eight years I lived in Miami, I came to love the fair as one of the top annual gatherings that turn the city into a Temporary Artonomous Zone — along with Art Basel, Winter Music Conference, the Miami Film Festival, the Trans-Atlantic Festival, and the much-mourned Langerado. The Fair contradicts the usual Miami bimbo stereotype: The city reveals itself as a modern urbane urban cosmopolis; book lovers come crawling out of their air-conditioned terrazzoed Florida rooms to fill the shelves with more signed, first-edition copies of the latest offerings from McSweeney’s, or Akashic, or, now, Books and Books Press. As I exited the fair last Saturday and Sunday, my mind stirred by the words of Campbell McGrath, Robert Pinsky, Sheri Fink, Richard Blanco, Thomas Glave, Shelly Gitlow, etc., I rode the parking-lot elevator with complete strangers. Like strangers on a train, we confessed our love of books as the lift rose, kindred spirits suddenly united against the decline of western civ.
I’d only ever experienced the fair as a local, until this year. It was illuminating to see it from outsiders’ eyes, and disappointing. While I still maintain that it’s an extraordinary event, a more meaningful gathering of book writers and readers than any others I’ve attended — from New York to Los Angeles to Austin — I now see that for the literary carpetbaggers and tourists, Miami remains a curiosity. They don’t see it as a moment when Progress steps out of the Muck; they see it as an experiment in mucking about. Every year, some daring scribe — legendarily, it was Candace Bushnell; this year, I was told, Joyce Maynard did the honors — gets naked and jumps in the water. For true Miamians, ’tis not the season.
I was on a panel of books about music. One author, David N. Meyer, author of Bee Gees: The Biography, was a labelmate; another, Mark Kurlansky, an esteemed bestseller. Unfortunately, we let a mike-hogging diva go first; she took up twice her allotted time with her name-dropping stories of Glory Days, and left us real writers gasping for air.
Still, it was standing room only, and I was heartened to see so many of my old friends, family, and colleagues there. My Miami years — 2001 to 2009 — are dear to me. And I got to revisit them, for one weekend.
The author party Saturday night was at the Surfcomber Hotel, a Collins Avenue hotspot that used to be the hub for the legendary M3 event during WMC. I saw so many great shows that I can barely remember there; it was the first place I saw Brazilian Girls, and Diplo. It’s got that classic South Beach layout: sashay from the valet, through the hotel lobby, past the bungalows and pool, to the back bar, to the beach, to the Atlantic. Take off your clothes and dive in. If you’re from the North.
Me, I hung with my old pals: Susie Horgan, Kaplan, Shelly and Howard Gitlow. Oh, and a writer whose book was getting the lead review in the New York Times Book Review the next day. Nice guy. But the rain outside had turned Collins Avenue into Collins River, and the Surfcomber’s restaurant had closed, and the bar was charging even Kaplan an arm and leg for a bowl of chips. Miami, the seas are rising, and you are not.