Book Festival packed record turnout, few students

Martha Sanchez, News Editor

The New Orleans Book Festival attracted a record turnout, but many students were still absent from the crowds last weekend. (Martha Sanchez)

It lured authors and book lovers. Jill Biden dropped by. It was so popular that late guests faced shut doors. The signs read “session full.” 

But in the crowds that packed campus last weekend for the New Orleans Book Festival, one thing was mostly missing: students. 

Where were they? 

“I wanted to go see Carl Bernstein,” sophomore Maayan Aizenberg said. “But I had class.” 

“I was just so busy last week,” junior Will York said. “And the week before that, I really didn’t know about it.”

Aizenberg, York and other students said it was not that they avoided the Book Festival, held last Thursday through Saturday on Tulane University’s campus. They considered going and plan to next year. But last weekend, many just missed it. The announcements got lost in their emails, and they heard of events at the last minute. Some were busy with schoolwork or were not familiar with the authors coming. 

Lack of student attendance meant festival audiences skewed older. But demand endured — counters at each venue estimated the total turnout at 16,000, more than double last year’s estimate of 6,000 guests. 

One thousand seven hundred people attended the opening session with Bill Gates and former attorney general Eric Holder, Book Festival Director Cheryl Landrieu said. 

She and organizers have already begun working to improve the festival for next year. They will consider larger venues, like McAlister Auditorium and Dixon Hall. This year, the festival formed a student advisory committee to understand what students wanted to see, and they will keep working with campus groups to advertise the 2024 festival. 

“People ask ‘Why can’t you do this during spring break?’” Landrieu said. “It’s because it’s important to us to have students involved.”

Students were not entirely absent. Some trickled into events solo or with their parents. Many were ecstatic to hear Bill Gates. Others spoke up during question and answer portions of panels. 

News of First Lady Jill Biden’s unannounced visit on Friday spread quickly among students. Biden, whose daughter graduated from Tulane in 2003, stopped by to hear authors Geraldine Brooks, Sadequa Johnson and Katy Simpson Smith. 

“I don’t know, across the country, if there’s another university that has this level of speakers coming to the campus,” Landrieu said. Other big names this year included investor David Rubenstein, physicist Brian Greene and authors Walter Mosley and Malcolm Gladwell. 

Junior Lily Hersch went to see Gates and Holder, then heard U.S. diplomat Richard Haass on Saturday. 

“He’s super cool,” she said of Haass. Hersch said some students might have shied away from attending because they had not read the authors’ books. But that feeling may be rooted in misconception. 

“Rarely it’s actually promoting the book,” Hersch said. “It’s more about their experience and their story.” 

Landrieu encouraged students and their families to attend the festival next year. 

“This is for them,” she said. 

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