Cold and dreary January is the perfect month to make travel plans for the year ahead. And what better reason to embark on a new adventure than a beautiful book festival you’ve been dying to visit? With venues ranging from Indian palaces and ocean fronts lined with palm trees to eclectic English market towns, here’s our pick of the 25 best annual book festivals around the world.
1. Jaipur Literary Festival, India, January
While thinking of this dusty, provincial city usually brings images of spectacular pink palaces – still guarded by turban-wearing watches – to mind, Jaipur is actually making a big name for itself in the book world. Every January, the literary community gathers for the annual Jaipur Literary Festival, which is said to be the largest free book event in the world. From Nobel laureates to local language writers, Man Booker prize winners to debut novelists, the festival offers five days of readings, debates and discussions at the beautiful Diggi Palace in the Rajasthani capital. If we could go to one literary event in 2014, this would probably be it.
2. Hay Festival Cartagena, Colombia, January
Slightly more exotic than its Welsh counterpart, the Hay Festival Cartagena has become one of the most important literary events in the Hispanic world. Every year, a celebration of literature, visual arts, cinema, music, geopolitics, journalism and the environment takes over Colombia’s colourful walled city for four very lively days.
3. Irrawaddy Literary Festival, Burma, February
Though Burma has a rich literary history, the country’s publishing industry has been somewhat stifled by military rule in recent years. The Irrawaddy Literary Festival is an important and celebrated step forward. A big lure for book lovers at 2014’s event is likely to be the "world's largest book", set in the grounds of Mandalay's Kuthodaw Pagoda, the festival venue and a Unesco World Heritage Site.
4. Shanghai Literary Festival, China, March
Writers from across the globe gather annually for this slightly smaller and more intimate event, which takes place at the stylish M on the Bund restaurant over the course of 11 days. Alumni include the youngest ever Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton and bestselling author Amy Tan.
5. Words by the Water Festival, Cumbria, UK, March
Closer to home, Words by the Lake, situated right on the edge of the beautiful Derwentwater in Cumbria, sees readers and writers coming together to share the pleasure of books, words and ideas. There’s a pretty packed ten-day programme of events, which include lectures, workshops, book launches and special exhibitions.
6. Southern Literary Festival, Mississippi, USA, March
The Southern Literary Festival is an organisation of colleges and schools in the USA, founded in 1937, to promote southern literature. Each year a different school hosts the Southern Literary Festival and, in 2014, it’s the turn of the University of Mississippi. Enjoy sampling a selection of the hearty fare famous in the Deep South – cornbread, creole catfish and chicken and dumplings – before taking part in some of the festival’s masterclasses or visiting Rowan Oak, the former home of American writer and Nobel laureate William Faulkner.
7. PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, New York, USA, April
The PEN American Centre, the American branch of the world's oldest international literary and human rights organisation, hosts the World Voices Festival of International Literature annually. Writers from across the globe convene in New York City to explore bravery in art, politics and personal life.
8. LA Times Festival of Books, Los Angeles, USA, April
Bibliophiles positively flock to the LA Times Festival of Books in sunny Los Angeles every April. This fun, relaxed, outdoor, two-day event boasts rows upon rows of bookish stalls. As informal as it looks, the festival is well-known for its excellent (and eclectic) guest list having featured everyone from Batman comic book writers to Margaret Atwood and the late, great Ray Bradbury.
9. Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts, Wales, May
The pretty market town of Hay-on-Wye – on the English-Welsh border – has been nicknamed the ‘town of books’ and famously plays host to the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts in May. While this little community usually has a population of just 1500, it explodes in size during the event, with over 250,000 readers and writers descending for its lineup of bestselling author talks, workshops and book signings. Hay-on-Wye also boasts an absolutely brilliant selection of bookshops. Always a bonus.
10. Sydney Writers Festival, Australia, May
For one week in May, the Sydney Writers Festival offers over 300 events celebrating literature and ideas. Bringing together authors of the very best contemporary fiction and writers of cutting edge nonfiction, there are literary salons, workshops and mingling opportunities galore.
11. Letterature, Italy, June
Held in the beautiful, historic setting of Basilica di Massenzio within Rome's ancient Forum, meanwhile, is Letterature. Though more low profile than most, this festival attracts big-name authors who give smaller, more intimate lectures across a five-day period. They often share the stage with local bands and musicians in what is, truly, a celebration of literature in the most atmospheric of locations.
12. Stoke Newington Literary Festival, UK, June
It might be the new kid on the literary block compared to some of the other festivals on this list, but the Stoke Newington Literary Festival – now in its fifth year – manages to pack a pretty big bookish punch. While paying homage to the north London neighbourhood’s literary history (Daniel Defoe once lived at 95 Church Street and Edgar Allen Poe went to school just down the road), the festival offers a contemporary, thought-provoking and varied programme with lots of special guests.
13. FLIP, Brazil, July
The pretty coastal town of Paraty in Brazil (named for its frequent pirate visitors of long ago) draws thousands of visitors for FLIP, its annual literary festival founded by publishing powerhouse Liz Calder – who also co-founded Bloomsbury. There’s an emphasis on cultural exchange and guests can be found sitting in the charming, old-fashioned squares until the early hours of the morning discussing literature and the arts long after the scheduled programme of events concludes for the day.
14. Port Eliot Festival, Cornwall, UK, July
One of our particular favourites, the Port Eliot Festival describes itself as “an annual celebration of words, music, imagination, ideas, nature, food, fashion, flowers, laughter, exploration and fun”. It’s held in the arty town of St. Germans and boasts a smart, ultra-cool boutique feel. Caitlin Moran, Tracy Chevalier, Sarah Waters and Kate Summerscale are all Port Eliot alumni and give you a pretty good idea of what kind of lineup to expect.
15. Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate, July
This festival’s name, let alone the sterling line up of authors including Gillian Flynn, Ann Cleeves, Sophie Hannah and Laura Lippman, promises a good time. Last year, the Poirot and Me: An Evening with David Suchet event packed the festival to the rafters. A must visit for fans of the crime genre.
16. Edinburgh International Book Festival, Scotland, August
With over 750 events, the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s tented literary village takes 15 days to construct and 10 days to take down. In a somewhat mammoth celebration of the written word, around 800 writers fly in from all over the world to rub shoulders with the audience.
17. National Book Festival, Washington DC, USA, August
The 14th annual Library of Congress National Book Festival will be held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama acting as honorary chairs. Free to attend, guests can mingle with their favourite authors and have their photo taken with beloved storybook characters at a variety of events and book signings. New for 2014 will be Great Books to Great Movies, a pavilion that will offer an evening panel discussion with experts and film-industry figures, followed by a screening of a classic movie adaptation of a classic book.
18. Wigtown Book Festival, Scotland, September
Ancient monuments, sandy beaches and plenty of clifftop walking trails, the market town setting for Wigtown Book Festival couldn’t be prettier. Located in the beautiful countryside of Dumfries and Galloway in south-west Scotland, Wigtown is Scotland's National Book Town, a designation that reflects its excellent dozen or so second hand bookshops and annual literary festival. Dubbed “the sort of festival people become possessive about” by The Guardian, the ten-day literary celebration welcomes writers and readers from far and wide with a brilliant programme of over 175 bookish events.
19. Agatha Christie Festival, Torquay, UK, September
Each September, the English Riviera transforms itself into the murder mystery capital of the UK, with ladies and dapper chaps in their period finery gathering for tea parties, theatre, dinners on steam trains and vintage bus tours. Perhaps one of the more fun and quintessentially eccentric book events in the country, the annual award-winning Agatha Christie Festival is an absolute must-do for fans of the Queen of Crime.
20. Brooklyn Book Festival, USA, September
The sort of hip, smart gathering of literary minded folks that could only be found in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Book Festival is the largest free literary event in New York City and presents an array of literary stars as well as emerging authors. Expect film screenings, parties and bookish games galore.
21. International Festival of Authors, Canada, October
One of the largest literary forums in Canada, the annual International Festival of Authors held in Toronto every October, aims to bring together the world’s best authors in contemporary fiction.
22. International Literature Festival Berlin, Germany, October
Arabic poets and American short story writers, South Korean poets and their Russian colleagues, South African novelists and Albanian novices – each year in September, the International Literature Festival Berlin presents a celebration of worldwide literature across 180 individual events.
23. Vancouver Writers Festival, Canada, October
Poetry jams, one-to-one interviews and panel discussions, the Vancouver Writers Festival celebrates the stirring of ideas and the connection we all share in literature. For six days in October, authors, poets, spoken word performers and graphic novelists come together to connect with readers in a vibrant and lively environment.
24. Cheltenham Literature Festival, UK, October
With inspiring readings and talks by a great line up of international guests at its core, The Cheltenham Literature Festival has something for everyone. The packed schedule spans almost two weeks and, whether your interest lies in sports, politics, publishing, comedy or theatre, you’ll find the biggest names and most contemporary authors participating in a carefully curated selection of events.
25. Miami Book Fair, USA, November
Palm trees, ocean spray and hot and humid weather – even in the late month of November – offer a tantalising backdrop for the annual Book Fair in Miami. Highlights of the eight-day itinerary include the Street Fair, with more than 350 authors reading and discussing their work, and the popular Evenings With Series, which features nighttime readings and discussions with noted authors from the United States and around the world. Last year’s attendees included Bridget Jones author Helen Fielding and Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame.
There you have it. The best annual book festivals at home and in exotic, far-flung corners of the world. Tell us, if you could attend just one in 2014, which would it be?