Lit Fest holds on to that printed feeling

As obvious as this may sound at first, the 28th annual Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest, which concluded Sunday afternoon and drew an estimated 130,000 attendees and 200 authors to the South Loop on a sweltering, cloudless weekend, was not the kind of thing you could call up on a Kindle. It's a telling paradox about book fairs: Even as the publishing industry marches toward a digital future, festivals like Printers Row, Washington's National Book Festival (Sept. 22-23) and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (every April) continue to be large, bustling reminders of how much of the publishing world is still tangible — defiantly so.

Author Richard Russo was attending with his daughter, illustrator Kate Russo. They collaborated on "Interventions," a series of individually bound stories gathered in a slipcase. "We didn't set out to make an anti-book but more of a pro-book book," he told a packed house, adding that "Interventions" won't be released digitally: "It doesn't make sense to us to make a beautiful object then sell it in an unbeautiful way."

Benjamin van Loon, seated behind a table on South Dearborn Street promoting his small, year-old, Chicago-based press, Anobium Books ("strange, surreal and insectile literature"), quipped that, as a publisher, "print almost feels like a guilty pleasure now. As a writer, I almost tell editors, 'Put it in a print, and you can pay me less.'"

That sentiment seemed to be in the air: Asked by an audience member if there was a digital archive in the works of his half-century of legendary cartooning, something that could be "downloaded," Jules Feiffer, who is 83, replied, "When I hear a word like 'download,' my blood just runs cold."

Not that the sentiment was universally shared.

Talk show host and chef Rachael Ray, at the Harold Washington Library to introduce her new cookbook, "The Book of Burger," described it as a "smart book" — meaning some of the recipes contain QR codes that can be scanned with a smartphone. The husky-voiced culinary star said the title came in an epiphany, while watching"The Book of Mormon" on Broadway: "I thought, 'Oh! That is exactly what we have to do now — 'The Book of Burger!'"

It should also be noted there's something very there and tangible about a brassy Rachael Ray. Just as there's something even more present about 80-year-old Dan Rather. He appeared Saturday at the library to discuss his new memoir. Reminding the audience that his own former job as a talking head was (and is) often seen as insubstantial, intangible, he said: "My father was mystified someone could make a living by talking."

Also very much there at Printers Row: "Friday Night Lights" author Buzz Bissinger, looking as square-jawed and intimidating as a high school football coach, saying, "I once got lost in a Holiday Inn Express parking lot, which is (expletive) hard to do"; Sara Levine, author of the satiric "Treasure Island!!!" and chair of the graduate writing program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, saying she doesn't have a visual imagination and considers herself "face blind"; former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III, speaking quietly, saying, when asked about Mitt Romney, "I do not know what he stands for."

There's no there there, he explained.

There is, however, a nice there there in the $5,000 given to Jeremy T. Wilson, a Chicago tutor whose story "Everything Is Going to Be Okay" won him the Tribune's 2012 Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. And something nicely substantial (or, arguably, as antiquated as printed books) about the Gwendolyn Brooks stamp unveiled Saturday by representatives of theU.S. Postal Service, in honor of the great Chicago poet.

Perhaps the oddest reminder of the persistence of literary presence, though, were the two — count 'em two — vendors at Printers Row selling T-shirts that featured mostly obscure literary references to authors and cultural icons. On Polk Street, there was Novel-T, a Brooklyn-based business selling mock literary baseball jerseys. The hottest seller was Edgar Allan Poe. The front of the shirt showed a raven and the back read "Poe" with, beneath it, the number, "13." But "Eggers" (with a picture of a stapler on front, a reference to Dave Eggers' memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" ) wasn't doing too badly either.

Around the corner on Dearborn Street was Lou Bank, a longtime Chicago marketing guy who, for the past 13 years, has been selling Novel-Tees, featuring references to Nick Hornby, Jonathan Lethem, Andrew Vachss, Bruce Springsteen and Shakespeare. He wore a straw hat and frequently let out a loud, practiced pitch: "T-Shirts! Featuring fictional businesses from obscure novels! Springsteen songs! Shakespeare plays!"

A customer!!!

"This is a (Chuck) Klosterman reference on this shirt, right?" the man asked.

"Right," Bank replied. "One hundred percent of proceeds go to the National Association to Protect Children. We don't keep a dime, Chuck doesn't get a dime, Bruce doesn't need a dime, Shakespeare hasn't asked."

Courtney Crowder, Jennifer Day and Monica Eng contributed.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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