Cincinnati's Books by the Banks Turns the Page on the Pandemic, Returning After a Two-Year Hiatus

The downtown festival on Nov. 19 will be a celebration of literature.

click to enlarge Books by the Banks is returning, bringing authors and literary enthusiasts together in Cincinnati. - Photo: Provided by Books by the Banks
Photo: Provided by Books by the Banks
Books by the Banks is returning, bringing authors and literary enthusiasts together in Cincinnati.

Editor's note: This story is featured in the Nov. 2 print edition of CityBeat.

Books are the best. They can take us places otherwise unimaginable. They’re intimate and immersive, a form of communication that transports and informs us like no other.

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered our consciousness in a visceral way, including how we witness things vital to our cultural engagement and affecting everything from live music and art gallery gatherings to in-theater movie screenings and stage plays. Artists and the organizations that support them have had to adapt to the shifting landscape, often prioritizing screen time over in person interaction.

But virtual connections are not always an option, nor are they ideal — it’s been three years since area literary lovers have convened for Books by the Banks, a celebration of the printed word that debuted in 2007 (for those unaware, “Banks” refers to the event’s proximity to the banks of the Ohio River). The annual endeavor features authors of local, regional and national origins, drawing attendees to a city known for its nurturing of books and those who write them.

And now the 14th edition of the fest is back, running 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Nov. 19, at the Duke Energy Convention Center. As before, it features panel discussions, author readings and signings and activities for kids. According to the event’s website (booksbythebanks.org), book genres highlighted include “biography,” “fantasy science fiction,” “fiction,” “history,” “local interest,” “memoir,” “middle grade,” “mystery,” “nonfiction,” “picture book,” “poetry,” “romance” and “teen.”

David Rippe, president of Books by the Banks’ board of trustees, admits planning this year’s gathering has been a challenge given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic. But the goal remains the same.

“The strategy is very similar to what it’s always been,” Rippe tells CityBeat. “We have an author committee that meets and looks at what they want to do in terms of bringing in authors covering different genres.”

Rippe says the board received 239 submissions from authors, which gave the team the opportunity to expand the roster.

“Originally, we were only going to be able to accommodate 75 of them because we have a smaller footprint (this year),” Rippe says. “But when we went to Duke Energy Center and figured out the layout, we realized we actually have room for, like, 90 authors, which is scaled back a little bit from our high in 2019 but it’s still going to be a great event.”

The lineup, which was not finalized at press time, is heavy on local authors who will discuss and sign their most recent efforts. Former Cincinnati Enquirer staffers Bill Koch, John Kiesewetter, Peter Bronson and Polly Campbell are set to appear. Ace mystery writer and Books by the Banks veteran David Bell is back, as is Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate, Pauletta Hansel. Novelists Judith Turner-Yamamoto and Sheila Williams and children’s author and illustrator Will Hillenbrand will take part, as will a host of other writers across various literary styles and interests. CityBeat contributors Rick Pender and Steven Rosen also will be on hand with their own tomes.

Rippe expects more than 4,000 attendees, even after a two-year layoff.

“We’re going to have lots of great activities for kids and adults, and people can meet their favorite authors and do what they normally do at the event,” Rippe says. “Other than the fact that we weren’t here for two years, it’s not going to seem like it’s any different than it’s always been. But behind the scenes, everyone is pulling their hair out [trying to finalize things].”

Rippe knows that literacy is a vital part of any community, and he hopes Books by the Banks will continue to foster current and future readers.

“We’ve always tried to get out into the community year-round by partnering with local libraries and helping support bringing authors in and doing signings and readings,” Rippe says. “It’s especially important in elementary and middle-grade schools.”

Author Erin Keane, who is participating in Books by the Banks for the first time, says she was an avid reader as a kid.

“Growing up in a household that always prized books made me an early reader, because I don’t really remember a time before I could read,” Keane says by phone from her home in Louisville, Kentucky. “But that’s to be expected when there are books all over the house. I was always allowed to read anything I wanted, so like a lot of bookish kids I ended up reading books beyond my comprehension at first. I think it also made me a writer.”

Flash-forward multiple decades and Keane is the editor in chief at online staple Salon, a creative writing teacher at Spalding University and the author of three books of poetry. Her recently published memoir, Runaway, deftly delves into her parents’ unique relationship — her mother ran away from home at age 13, eventually moving to New York City where, at 15, she met and married Keane’s father, who was 36 at the time. It’s a complicated story made even more mysterious given that her father died when Erin was just five years old.

“I started the book project because I realized how much I really didn’t know about my parents’ lives,” Keane says. “I thought I was going to write a one-off essay about the reconsideration of my parents’ marriage in light of everything we have gone through culturally with a sort of reframing of men and power and gender in the post-‘Me Too’ reckoning.”

But the book became as much about her mother and the life she made for Keane and her brother in the years since her father’s passing. Keane weaves her love of pop culture throughout the narrative as a way of understanding her own life and experiences. The opening chapter includes an evaluation of Woody Allen’s Manhattan and its parallels to her parents’ story, as well as her own evolving reaction to what was once her favorite movie.

“I’ve always approached my work from the point of view that the cultural products that we consume both shape the culture and reflect that culture,” she says. “As a cultural critic, how I interact with those kinds of narratives is very personal to me, and that’s how I enter the world — through art.”

Books by the Banks takes place 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Nov. 19 at Duke Energy Convention Center, 525 Elm St., Downtown. Info: booksbythebanks.org.

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