Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Above: On the UT campus near the LBJ Library, the LLILAS-Benson Collection offers a spacious reading room for followers of Latin American letters.
TOP 10 TEXAS BOOKISH DESTINATIONS 2017
Those for whom language is not a laughing matter might want to avoid one of the iconic events occurring each spring in the state’s number one bookish destination. Participants in Austin’s O. Henry Pun-off World Championships have been creating clever wordplays for nearly four decades — and the event will be celebrating its 40th anniversary on Saturday, May 13, 2017.
Back in the 1880s, when North Carolina native William Sidney Porter worked as a draftsman for the General Land Office and lived with his new wife in a modest rented house in downtown Austin, Brush Square was a much different environment than today, when the relocated house is surrounded by high-rises and hotels. Gaining infamy in Austin as an embezzler and acclaim in Houston, San Antonio, and elsewhere under the famous pseudonym O. Henry, Porter set 42 of his stories in Texas.
Today, you can visit O. Henry’s relocated Victorian-style house at 409 East 5th Street; the City of Austin maintains the house as a museum dedicated to the author’s life and career during his Austin years; it also manages the Susanna Dickinson Museum next door. Admission to both is free.
Another iconic city-owned destination for book lovers is situated on the other side of Lady Bird Lake from downtown, in Austin’s 350-acre Zilker Park. At the entrance to the historic spring-fed Barton Springs Pool, three giants of Texas letters are frozen mid-debate in a Glenna Goodacre sculpture called “Philosophers’ Rock.” Since 1994 the bronze likenesses of authors J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb have occupied this prominence near the trio’s long-ago poolside gathering spot for what might be considered “Austin’s first literary salon.”
In fall 2015 the Texas Center for the Book moved to Austin from Dallas, where the Dallas Public Library had hosted the organization since its inception in 1987. The Texas Center for the Book, (TCB) located at the Lorenzo De Zavala State Archives and Library Building in Austin, was established to stimulate public interest in books, reading and libraries and encourages the study of the written word to the more than 26 million residents in the State of Texas.
One of fifty state centers affiliated with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, the TCB is a nonprofit organization under the direction of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and is guided by library professionals, educators, authors, publishers and booksellers who provide support to their shared mission of promoting a love of literature throughout the Lone Star State. The TCB sponsors special exhibits, literary programs, creative writing contests, lectures and symposia, and publications. It promotes the educational and cultural role of the book; the history of books and printing; authorship and writing; libraries; publishing and preservations of books; reading and literacy.
The TCB and the Texas State Archives and Library are among the many government and university sites in the state’s capitol that welcome visitors regularly. Bookish travelers to Austin will find literary wonders in store at the LBJ Presidential Library, the LLILAS (Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies) Benson Collection, and the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, and UT’s Perry-Castañeda Library, all on the UT campus, as well as the Austin History Center, a unit of the public library.
In Austin, one of the bookish newcomers might even come to you. In November the Austin Public Library debuted its first human-powered mobile library, unbound: sin fronteras, which shares books, information and online resources with the community at non-traditional venues. The unbound: sin fronteras trike and trailer pops up around Austin at community events, washaterias, or even city parks. Funded by the Austin Public Library and the Austin Transportation Department's Active Transportation Program (formerly the City of Austin Bicycle Program), the unbound: sin fronteras fleet is made up of a cargo trike from Haley Trikes in Philadelphia and a custom-built trailer by local builder Saila Bicycles. Both are hand-painted by Red Rider Studios, which recently relocated to Taylor, Texas. The trike and trailer were assembled in Austin at East Side Pedal Pushers.
The Austin Public Library system includes its Faulk Central Library at 800 Guadalupe Street, and twenty public library branches that host everything from genealogy classes to the Austin Poetry Society’s monthly gatherings to the Recycled Reads secondhand bookstore. But stay tuned for library news later this year: The New Central Library, facing Lady Bird Lake, will open in 2017 as the first "library for the future" in the United States and only the second in the world.
The Austin Book Arts Center teaches all of the crafts related to traditional bookbuilding. Since 2015 it has been housed in the headquarters of the Flatbed Press, which celebrated 25 years of printmaking in 2016.
Right: BookWoman has hosted writers from Austin and around the globe for more than four decades, including local poet Jenna Martin Opperman in February 2016.
Above: UT-Austin's Harry Ransom Center houses books, manuscripts, photographs, and other materials for research and study
The Austin Book Arts Center, housed in the im-press-ive Flatbed building at 2832 E. Martin Luther King, opened at its new location in fall 2015 with a mission to engage people of all ages in creative, interpretive, and educational experiences related to the arts of the book. Beginning last fall, and drawing on the expertise of longtime book-arts specialists in the area as well as Austin émigré from Houston’s Printing Museum Amanda Stevenson, ABAC has offered more than two dozen workshops in letterpress printing, bookbinding, papermaking, typography, book history and design, and various arts of the book. In addition, ABAC provided access to equipment for qualified users during regularly scheduled Open Studios. Through its activities, ABAC seeks to advance the book as a vital contemporary art form, preserve the traditional and robust crafts related to making books, promote the contemporary arts of making books, inspire diverse artists and learners, and engage the community in creative, interpretive, and educational experiences, including the improvement of literacy for people of all ages.
And if you’re a fan of vintage letter craft—or a poet—check out the Typewriter Rodeo, a hardy group of writers-for-hire who create ad hoc compositions on old Royals and Underwoods.
One Austin tradition that has bridged old and new is the Texas Book Festival, which begins in third decade this fall (the exact weekend is always coordinated with the away football schedule for the UT Longhorns; 2017 dates are Nov. 4–5). A free annual book fair held on the grounds and premises of the State Capitol and other nearby venues, the festival was established in 1995 by Laura Bush, then the first lady of Texas, and Mary Margaret Farabee, wife of former state senator Ray Farabee. Featuring hundreds of authors, performers, and publishers each year, the festival benefits the state's public library system, promotes the joy of reading, and honors Texas authors. With the assistance of honorary chairman and librarian Mrs. Bush, and a dedicated task force, the festival has grown to be one of the largest in the nation, and it’s hosted more than 3,000 authors since its introduction.
The Texas Book Festival also hosts other events throughout the year. For an annual calendar of recurring events in Austin, and the current year’s dates as soon as they’re posted, refer to our Go page. In Austin, check out the Texas Teen Book Festival, the Jewish Book Fair, the New Fiction Confab, the African American Book Festival; Austin International Poetry Festival, and Poetry at Round Top, to name a few.
Austin is blessed with a bounty of bookstores, including indies BookPeople, BookWoman, Malvern Books, Resistencia Bookstore, South Congress Books, Austin Books & Comics, MonkeyWrench Books, and Brave New Books (Read more in-depth descriptions of these bastions of books at the Texas Book Festival website) and five Barnes & Nobles, six Half Price Books stores, and a Mardel Christian Bookstore. All feature regularly events for the literary enthusiast.
BookPeople alone hosts more than 300 (yes, three hundred) events annually, with authors far and near. For popular touring authors—such as recent readers George Saunders and former president Jimmy Carter—space may be limited, and the store issues advance free tickets for these. But even if you can’t make it in person to a signing, BookPeople provides an online pre-ordering service for signed copies.
BookWoman, on North Lamar, recently celebrated forty years in business—making it one of only a handful of feminist bookstores still thriving in North America. Owner Susan Post was named Austin’s “Best Feminist Flamekeeper” by the Austin Chronicle in 2014; the store has made the Chronicle’s “best” lists in numerous categories over the years.
In the spoken-word realm, there’s a lot to hear in Austin, including the Neo-Soul Poetry Slam (every Thursday at Mr. Catfish & More), the Austin Poetry Slam (Tuesdays at the Spider House Café and Ballroom), and the Spoken and Heard (Open Mic poetry) series (Kick Butt Coffee, Sunday nights).
Every first Tuesday of the month, Austinites gather around to hear writers and authors read one page of a project they’re working on at the One Page Salon at the Whip In (1950 S IH-35), a performance space-cum-Indian food restaurant–cum wine-and-Asian food purveyor-cum-biergarten. The projects vary in style and type. Prose, poetry, plays, novels, short stories, screen plays, anything involving the written word is welcome. The concept of One Page Salon started several years ago when writer Owen Egerton and his wife wanted to hang out with fellow creative types, drink wine, and share ideas. Fortunately, they had to look no further for a host than his favorite writing spot, Whip In. Owner Dipak Topiwala has been a longtime supporter of Egerton and his work.
Austin’s a world-class university city, of course, and that means frequent opportunities to catch a reading by visiting writers at UT-Austin, St. Edward’s University, Austin Community College, and other institutions. UT’s Harry Ransom Center for the Humanities, which last year added the papers of the late Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel García Márquez to its lengthy roster of literary archives, maintains a renowned collection of rare books (including a Gutenberg Bible and three Shakespeare First Folios) and holds more than 42 million manuscripts. The Center mounts public exhibitions year-round from its collections (a recent show celebrated 150 years of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland). While the HRC is primarily a research institution and use of its collections must be arranged in advance, public tours are offered at regular times, several days a week; no reservation is required.
The Michener Center for Writers, a top-ranked MFA program, accepts fellows to study and write with dozens of resident and visiting faculty in fiction, poetry, playwriting or screenwriting.
Austin's authors Authors associated with Austin include, from top left: Sarah Bird, Stephen Harrigan, Elizabeth Crook, Jeff Abbott, Nikki Loftin, Amanda Eyre Ward, Skip Hollandsworth, Mary Helen Specht, Lawrence Wright, Bethany Hegedus, Natalia Sylvester, Don Tate, Katherine Catmull, Edward Carey, Elizabeth McCracken.
The Austin Public Library maintains a useful, more comprehensive list:
Past literary lights of Austin include western writer J. Frank Dobie and the newsman-storyteller O. Henry, the onetime Austin resident William Sidney Porter, who crowned the state capital “City of the Violet Crown.”
For learning experiences accessible to the wider writing public, join the Writers’ League of Texas and sign up for their workshops, newsletters, conference, and contests. Founded in 1981 as the Austin Writers’ League, the organization expanded its scope in 2000 to serve a statewide population of writers and authors.
In recent years Austin has played home to a burgeoning enclave of young adult, middle grade, and children’s authors. Four local chapters of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) are known for fostering a close-knit community of children's book creators. It meets monthly and holds workshops and critique and networking opportunities throughout the year. The organization also runs an annual conference for all levels of creators.
Austin’s also home to the Texas Institute of Letters; three chapters of the Romance Writers of America, two chapters of Sisters in Crime, a chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and more than a dozen critique groups in the region that are open to newcomers. (Check them out on our Write page.)
If you like to learn about the writing craft when you travel, you’ll want to check out the Writing Barn. Situated on seven and a half wooded acres in south Austin, this rural-chic facility under the oaks provides a peaceful retreat for writers without ever leaving Austin and hosts a slate of workshops, talks, seminars, and meetings.
And when you’re ready to plug into the publishing scene, you’ll find myriad opportunities in Austin. From the University of Texas Press, which publishes regional trade books and art books in addition to its core of scholarly titles, to a flourishing trend of independent and small presses and journals, there’s plenty to learn and enjoy.
In addition to the statewide coverage of book events and authors news in Lone Star Literary Life each week, and the reviews in the Sunday Austin American-Statesman, when you’re traveling to Austin be sure to check out the American-Statesman’s Austin 360 and the Austin Chronicle to plan your bookish itinerary.
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