Life: The Chicago Humanities Festival

The 23rd Chicago Humanities Festival ended mid-November; I’m sorry to see it go. A month long event, the Festival offers one hundred programs centered on a single theme. This year, America.

There was a one-man play, a cabaret, and talks by scholars, writers, educators, thinkers, politicians, and comedians. I felt like I was back at a university; by its master we were brought along an idea or theory or subject. None of the events are lengthy; most are an hour or 90 minutes. http://www.chicagohumanities.org/

My smart, worldly friend Deborah Clarkson kept me company, which made every event more fun, even during the one we loathed. (“The Other 60’s.” How could anything with that title be so limited, and dreary?)

That lecture is my sole complaint; the festival is a feast for any thinking person.

First stop: New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik in conversation with Chicago Sun Times columnist Neil Steinberg, on the subject of eating. Gopnik is best known for “Paris to the Moon.” He came to talk about his new book, “The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food.” Gopnik can hold his own on stage — he’s wise and witty — but the presence of Steinberg created an intimate discussion. Here were two tremendously accomplished writers sharing a talk that covered everything from sourcing locavore protein to the secret of a long happy marriage. (Gopnik: “Lust, laughter, loyalty.”)

The next week we heard ethicist Ezekiel Emanuel on American health care. Emanuel is a (squeaky) natural on stage. He took us through American health care spending — we spend more on health care than most other countries spend on everything. Interestingly, the costliest segment of our spending is chronic disease, i.e., heart disease, cancer, stroke. How to lower cost? More thoughtful care, not less, to minimize hospital stays.

Next we brought our husbands to a lecture about the banjo, that very American instrument and sound. Duke University historian Laurent Dubois, an expert on the Caribbean, traced the banjo to Africa. Slaves  made similar instruments in the Caribbean and colonial America. We topped that afternoon lecture with cocktails at nearby J. Parker, the bar that tops the Hotel Lincoln. (1816 N. Clark St., 13th floor.) What a view!

With a child still at home I try to limit “school night” lectures. But I had to hear Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, lecture on objects. He was behind “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” a BBC radio series and book. The charming scholar narrowed his talk to objects that played a part in the evolution of the Americas: a Clovis spear point, a golden Inca llama, a West African drum. I sighed listening to him connect the dots.

Last, a perfect evening. Novelist Richard Ford read from and talked about his latest prize-winning book, “Canada,” and the art and craft of writing. Among the treasure he shared: when he finishes a manuscript, he reads it out loud to his wife, over five weeks, eight hours per day. Together they stop to question word choice, and phrasing. When he becomes frustrated, she says, “Come, let’s take a walk.”


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