A Festival That May Change Your Life

Books change lives. I speak from experience: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird inspired me to go to law school, and later to clerk for federal judge and civil rights advocate A. Leon Higginbotham Jr.

As president of Tulane University, I have the honor of leading an institution with a rich and ongoing history of contributions to the written word, in a city with a renowned literary tradition. It is also a city known for its festivals, and next week’s New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University is the latest signature celebration.

Some of the biggest festivals in the city are scheduled at times that are difficult for students to attend — during final exams, or over the summer break. But now we are hosting the city’s most exciting new festival right here on Tulane’s uptown campus, and I’m thrilled for our students to experience it alongside community members and book lovers from across the country. Last year’s inaugural Book Fest attracted 6,000 attendees, and we expect to see that number increase by several thousand this year.

Those who study or work at Tulane have an incredible opportunity to engage in and beyond the classroom with the brilliant thinkers, scholars and writers who make their intellectual home on our campuses. Book Fest brings them together with nationally prominent authors in a Mardi Gras for the mind that welcomes the entire New Orleans community.

Under the leadership of Tulane alum Quint Davis, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has become a cultural institution by featuring local artists alongside national headliners. Book Fest does the same, showcasing renowned Tulane and local authors alongside marquee names like Maggie Haberman, Malcolm Gladwell, Geraldine Brooks, Jon Meacham, Elizabeth Alexander and Bill Gates. As Tulane professor T.R. Johnson notes in the just-published New Orleans: A Writer’s City, the neighborhoods of New Orleans have nurtured an incredible array of diverse voices. Book Fest expands outward from that starting point to offer a breathtaking variety of perspectives and themes.

If you haven’t yet taken a moment to peruse the schedule, I encourage you to do so now. I guarantee your jaw will drop at the staggering selection of nationally acclaimed journalists, poets, historians, philanthropists, entrepreneurs and writers of fiction, humor, children’s literature and cultural commentary — and that’s just the beginning. Festival co-chairs Cheryl Landrieu, a lawyer and author, and Walter Isaacson, the Leonard A. Lauder Professor of American History and Values at Tulane and a bestselling biographer, have assembled a roster of speakers that includes multiple National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize recipients, along with the first African American U.S. Attorney General and a former U.S. Poet Laureate.

While the Book Fest celebrates the joy of the written word, it also celebrates the local food, music and culture that have inspired so many writers. You can taste this inspiration at a culinary symposium with some of the city’s finest chefs, learn about it at a Music Summit panel that will explore the sounds of New Orleans and dance to it at a closing concert with the iconic Preservation All-Stars in the Hyatt Regency Festival Tent on the Berger Family Lawn.

One highlight of last year’s Book Fest for me was interviewing Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, who shared his inspiring vision for reorienting philanthropy away from traditional notions of charity and toward human dignity and justice. This year I’m looking forward to interviewing retired four-star General Stanley McChrystal, who draws on his decades of military leadership experience to advise Fortune 500 companies on managing teams and responding to risk.

I’m also looking forward to repeating another highlight of my Book Fest experience from last year: reading to local children at Family Day, which invites families from the surrounding area to meet children’s book authors, participate in interactive reading activities and pick out complimentary books to bring home.

I hope you will join me in celebrating literacy and culture at this uniquely Tulane, uniquely New Orleans gathering, which is on its way to becoming one of the nation’s premier literary events. I’m confident that you will remember it as one of the highlights of your Tulane experience. And who knows? You may even find the book that will change your life.