Boston Book Festival, set for Saturday, seeks to make sense of ‘Where We Find Ourselves’

illustration from AP; globe staff photo illustration

This time it’s different.

“Every year for the past few years, we’ve kind of let the program as it’s formed determine what the theme will be, but this year it was pushed a little bit by our own feelings about where we find ourselves,” said Deborah Porter, founder and executive director of the Boston Book Festival. “We definitely wanted to give a nod to our political moment and how that all happened.”

It’s a pretty safe bet that most of the attendees of the region’s largest literary celebration are on the same page.

The theme of the ninth annual festival, which is being held this Saturday at Copley Square, is “Where We Find Ourselves.” Porter said that many of the sessions will offer perspectives on travel and the concept of home, finding oneself by engaging with literature, and where we as a nation find ourselves politically. That last one looms particularly large.

Take, for instance, Nancy Koehn, a professor at Harvard Business School who will be discussing her most recent book, “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times,” in a panel called Good Leaders.

“We have a number of unconscious default settings about what we think constitutes great leadership: charisma, aggression, off-the-charts public speaking skills,” says Koehn. “It’s not that those things may not be important in certain contexts, it’s just that a very shy, introverted, slow-moving person like [environmental activist] Rachel Carson can have more impact than many, many US presidents.”

Koehn has observed a “leadership vacuum, at least at the national level” and believes this has caused Americans to lose faith in those in power. She hopes that her panel will help remind people that they have the power to fill that vacuum.

“There’s an implicit call to action and leadership for all kinds of people, from teenagers to health care reformers, in this book that I think it’s very important for people to hear,” says Koehn.

Another politically charged panel, Racism in America: It’s a Crime, will feature MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes, who recently wrote a book titled “A Colony in a Nation” about the nation’s racial and economic divide and how the criminal justice system helps maintain the status quo.

“The [pop cultural] representations are detectives solving crimes with a ton of research and trials with dramatic cross-examinations, but in the criminal justice system there are basically no trials,” says Hayes. “The adversarial system, ‘I object,’ none of that exists. It’s basically a factory assembly line,” especially for disadvantaged and disenfranchised communities.

Hayes insists it’s crucial that white people like himself continue to discuss issues of race.

“I think that’s part of the problem, the thought that whiteness is neutral and then there’s race,” says Hayes. “If we don’t have white people writing about race, especially about how whiteness works, then we don’t have a conversation on race.”

And conversations about social challenges won’t be the exclusive province of nonfiction authors. Lisa Ko, whose award-winning debut novel, “The Leavers,” wrestles with issues of immigration and identity, will be part of a panel titled Strangers in a Strange Land.

“I feel like we’re at a time in which storytelling is being used against us in some ways,” says Ko. “It feels important to not only keep honing our abilities to read the story behind the story, but also remember the importance of telling our own stories and advocating for more stories to be told.”

Porter doesn’t want to give the impression that the entire festival will be politically charged; as in past years there will be panels for writers and readers in literary fiction, general nonfiction, poetry, memoir, thrillers, and a whole slate of events for children and young adults.

“We want people to come and have some fun, too,’’ she said. “It doesn’t have to be serious the whole time.”

For instance, festivities got going last night with Lit Crawl events around town, and tonight will see the celebration’s official kickoff event: The Book Revue, a variety show starring various authors and hosted by Boston Globe Love Letters columnist Meredith Goldstein. The revue will feature performances from football player turned astronaut and writer Leland Melvin and poet and performer Krysten Hill, among others.

There will also be sessions with titles like Writer Idol, Beatles, and Biker, Baker, Dumpling Maker.

Those interested in autobiography can stop into a number of gatherings — Strange Journeys, Ties that Bind, Arrivals and Departures, and Prison of the Self, to name a few. Fiction lovers can check out The Naughty Bits, Keep Us in Suspense, and Voices of America, and nonfiction aficionados can drop in on Our Digital Future, Natural and Unnatural History, and Geopolitics.

In a day of literary stars, the headliners include Maureen Dowd, Stephen Greenblatt, Ben Mezrich, Adam Gopnik, Eileen Myles, Dani Shapiro, Dennis Lehane, Claire Messud, Tom Perrotta, Jacqueline Woodson, Daniel Handler, and M.T. Anderson, among others.

Catching festival events will be easier than ever this year. All of the panels are free, while for the first time the East Boston Branch of the Boston Public Library will be hosting events for those unable to make it to Copley Square.

Organizers say that civic engagement is a priority. They point to the community-curated Unbound panels and the Shelf Help fund-raiser and book drive for the Curley K-8 school in Jamaica Plain’s library rebuilding effort. And a centerpiece of the festival is the One City One Story initiative in which a local author’s short story is distributed throughout Boston and then discussed at the festival. This year, it’s Somerville writer and teacher Daphne Kalotay’s “Relativity.”

Above all else, Porter hopes that the festival’s attendees walk away with an appreciation of the contributions books and authors make to our culture.

“I think it’s such a critical thing to have creative, thinking people writing, and that people support their writing,” says Porter. “So that’s really the main reason we exist, is to really encourage people to support a culture of books.”

A complete schedule of events is available at

Terence Cawley can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley

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