The Emperor's New Clothes (27/05/12)

Literary festivals are supposed to broaden the mind, but Matthew Bell would rather stay at home with a good book

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The Independent Online

Summer, at last. In the world of books, this means one thing: the literary festival. After months holed up indoors, writers burst into public life like dizzy-headed poppies and set off on a tour of Britain. This week it's Charleston, next week Hay: from Aberdeen to Penzance, every self-respecting town now has a lit fest, so thither they trot – York, Scarborough, Edinburgh – plugging their books at £9 a ticket.

Which, for us readers, must be lovely. At last – a chance to meet your heroes, to get close to the people who have informed and entertained you through the winter months. To learn what makes them tick. What's not to like?

Well, first you find the most interesting writers sell out within minutes. Either you make do with the second division, or you queue for a return. And for what? To spend an hour in some stuffy marquee, while the sun shines outside, struggling to hear A Great Writer read a passage of his new book, which you haven't got round to reading yet. Then the chairperson, usually a smug journalist down from London, will make a few cosy remarks before opening to the floor. There'll be one or two intelligent questions before the loonies pile in, demanding to know why this character was killed off in the last novel but three. And then you all file out, past the author signing books, who won't sign unless it's the new book, at 25 quid a pop.

When lit fests started, they were low-key and informal, and everyone headed to the pub afterwards. Today, the stars have their own Barclays-sponsored green room. But besides, who wants to meet their hero? On last week's Desert Island Discs, even the super-biographer Peter Ackroyd said we make too much of artists' lives.

There's still fun to be had, from just wandering around, enjoying serendipitous meetings with old friends. At university, I learnt that lectures were useful for one thing: getting a good hour's sleep. Anything I wanted to find out was in the library, written down in books. The same is true of lit fests: they're the perfect place to drink a lot of cider with friends. But for self-improvement? You're better off reading a book.