The Louisiana Book Festival (LBF), held annually inside and near the State Capitol Building in Baton Rouge, LA, has stood for 16 years as a haven for the state’s book-lovers and historians, natives and newcomers alike. According to Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser’s introductory comments in the 2019 LBF program, the festival was established in 2002 to emphasize, encourage and celebrate an environment of “reading and life-long learning” among the state’s citizens. This year the LBF invited over 235 authors and panelists to present their published works, participate in talks about their books or prospective books alongside other authors, or engage in discussions with speakers. State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton added to Nungesser’s comments, saying that “[a]s always, there is something for everyone” at this world-class literary festival. Each year, the LBF aims to highlight the state’s verdant and deeply rooted literary history. With programs running from 9 a.m to 4 p.m., discussing topics ranging from “Art, Photography and Architecture,” to “Children’s Interest,” to “Fiction and Literature,” “History” and “Nonfiction” to books about the importance of music and food to the state’s cultural history, the LBF housed events for citizens of all ages and interests.
In an effort to maintain the LBF’s focus on cultural history, the Festival Directors named local geographer, author and Associate Dean of Research at Tulane University Richard Campanella the recipient of the 2019 Louisiana Writer Award. Though born in Brooklyn, his geographic fascination with the Mississippi River, with New Orleans and its “troubled history” were piqued at a young age. Campanella followed this interest down to Louisiana, where in the 1990’s he studied Geography and Mapping Sciences at Louisiana State University. His books of historical geography on his beloved New Orleans have won him the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Book of the Year Award twice (2006, 2008), including the Hannah Arendt Prize for Scholarship for the Public Interest (2014), the Louisiana Library Association Literary Award (2015), and for his public services to the city was crowned King of the Krewe du Vieux parade during New Orleans’s 2018 tricentennial, and the Malcolm Heard Award for Excellence in Teaching by the Tulane School of Architecture.
Though to the public, the LBF’s festivities began once tents were set up, its official celebrations started with Campanella’s Louisiana Writer Award ceremony in the Capitol House Chamber, led by State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton. Following the ceremony, Campanella entered into an informal discussion with Susan Larson, host of WWNO’s public radio program “The Reading Life” and author of the popular 1999 “The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans,” about his books.
During this talk, Campanella discussed “Bourbon Street: A History,” published in 2014, which traces the origins of our neon-lit, smoke-laced street and national tourist attraction. The street itself came into being when the street grid was laid, yet it did not begin to rise to some prominence until the emergence of the Tango Belt in the 1920s. This led to the “innovation of the nightclub from the belle epoque in France,” Campenella detailed while speaking with Larson. “Current salons were male-dominated spaces. But these were glamorous, drinking- and smoking-friendly.” Naturally, the public flocked to Bourbon to witness these phenomena. By the 1960s, the street was economically subsidized by the sale of drugs. The lines between public and private spaces were blurred; businesses threw their doors out, and led crowds to come in and out as they pleased, because they knew the “action was in the street.” Hotels which exist to this day sprung up nearby. “The street survived due to its own anarchy,” Campanella explained. “There was no CEO, no President … [the street] tapped into a deeply rooted fantasy that many gulf port cities usually have: escapism.” It is this escapism which allowed the street to thrive as it had for so many decades, and yet through its every change came the scribes, and later the cameramen, to document those changes. As Bourbon St. to any other Louisiana landmark, Campanella salutes those documentarians, “the most critical people in history,” because “they are from whom we receive the record.”
The Louisiana Book Festival takes place the final weekend of October each year. The event is free and open to the public.