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August 18 2010

Book festivals bring out the brains in Britons

Turn off the TV, put down the papers, and take a tour of Britain's book festivals. We are a lot more cultured than you think

Book festivals are exceptional events that prove something interesting about modern Britain: that it is a much more cultured place, with a far deeper hunger for knowledge, than you would ever guess by watching television or, a lot of the time, reading the papers.

I've been on a bit of a festival tour this summer, performing at Hay, Ways with Words and most recently Edinburgh. The level of engagement you get with audiences is stunning.

In a way, the success of Edinburgh is the most impressive of all because it takes place as part of this city's famous festival season, in direct competition with the fringe and other festivals. In fact the book festival site is just up the road from the Assembly Rooms on George Street where, for comparison, I saw Richard Herring do standup. He was funny, especially when he imagined being in a bike race with Jesus, but the contrast between the passive audience experience at the Assembly Rooms (laughing as if primed with electrodes, often before the joke) and the question-and-answer, talk-to-the-author electricity of the book festival was telling. There is arguably more real life and energy in the book festival than in other "live" cultural forms – and this goes too, of course, for Hay, where a performance by historian Niall Ferguson was one of the best and funniest one-man shows I have ever seen.

As serious entertainment, as provocation, as a chance to get under the skin of culture as it is made and ideas as they are formed, Britain's book festivals make a mockery of any belief we are getting dumber. They raise the question: is it just the media and politicians who are dumb? For it seems Britain is full of people who want to talk about really interesting stuff. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 07 2010

The best of the Hay festival 2010

In Hay-on-Wye this year Ian McEwan got friendly with a pig, Christopher Hitchens reviewed his brother's book and Pervez Musharraf hinted at a bid for power. We round up the best of the Hay festival 2010

At the Hay festival 2010 the sun shone and the rain fell as a veritable galaxy of stellar names from literature, art and politics descended on the village of Hay-on-Wye: from Ian McEwan to James Lovelock, and from Roy Hattersley to Fatima Bhutto.

On our daily Haycast, we heard David Mitchell explain why formal experimentation is a young man's game, Nadine Gordimer claim her intimate life for herself and the people with whom it was lived, and Christopher Hitchens give his verdict on his brother Peter's latest book. While on stage, the environmental writer Fred Pearce said fears of overpopulation were nonsense, Helen Dunmore warned of the dangers of fictionalising history, the education secretary Michael Gove offered the historian Niall Ferguson a job, and Pervez Musharraf hinted at a possible bid for power.

We asked festivalgoers to send us their pictures of the Hay festival, and about the books they were actually reading. We also went in search of the festival beyond the canvas, setting authors Francesca Simon, Val McDermid, and Grayson Perry the challenge of finding a secondhand gem for less than a tenner.

But with the festival coming to a close, we returned to fundamentals, following the visitors to Hay-on-Wye in the quest which underlies the entire event – the search for used books, new books, half-forgotten books ... the search for that perfect book: the one you will be reading next. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 02 2010

Bookshop challenge

What does it take to bag a book bargain in Hay? Andrew Dickson packed artist Grayson Perry off to the Hay Cinema Bookshop

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