Charlottesville is not a large city– in fact while it is growing, it still has a very small-town feel compared to our usual Book Riot Literary Tourism sites. What’s interesting about Charlottesville is that, despite its size, thanks to a series of very involved groups, local authors and the local MFA program, it feels nicely connected to the book world.
Most people know it as the home of the University of Virginia, which means columns, classy lawns, and an intense academic reputation. You also have the unique relationship that UVA has with famous historical authors.
There is no doubt that UVA and Charlottesville are in love with Thomas Jefferson who founded the University and designed its famous rotunda and lawn. In addition, in the year 1826, Edgar Allan Poe both enrolled in and then left the school. He dropped out supposedly due to funding and gambling problems. Finally, William Faulkner taught at UVA in the 1950s. You can listen to Faulkner talk at UVA in recordings, which is awesome. So there’s a lot of history here, and a lot of landmarks to check out. There’s Poe’s dorm room, where you can look through glass to see a shrine maintained for him by UVA’s Raven Society. Of course, there’s Jefferson’s nearby home at Monticello, which is pretty fantastic.
Due to Jefferson’s influence, the architecture in Charlottesville is studied at length. For architecture buffs, you can check out books like The Architecture of Jefferson Country: Charlottesville and Albemarle County, Virginia, and then wander around looking for examples of Jeffersonian Classicism.
For history buffs and readers, you can always look into the great argument over whether or not the University of Virginia surrendered during the Civil War or allowed Northern occupation. When you walk around this little pocket of Virginia, the history of it and the work that the town has done to maintain that history is overwhelming.
But, there are more recently produced attractions too. First off, there’s WriterHouse, which is one of the most interesting groups for writer/reader to come across. They offer writing classes to people wishing to attend regularly or just once or twice. They have a membership offer for people wishing to write away from home in their offices. To have a place like this, you know there has to be an awesome acceptance of writing and reading here. More evidence of such a culture? Charlottesville is also the home of a ridiculous array of authors, including John Grisham and Anne Beattie.
You also have the Virginia Festival of the Book, which is an annual festival that has an overwhelming number of events, readings and big names. This March, there were attention-grabbing events like the headline event with Edwidge Danticat speaking, among others, and then readings with a great array of topics, like Kay Redfiel Jamison’s Unquiet Minds: Living with Bipolar Disorder and Mikita Brockman and Ann-Janine Morey’s presentation of The Dogs of Our Lives. Every year, there are presentations on research, novels, nonfiction books, short stories, and poetry. What’s nice about this festival is the spread of events throughout the little city, so you are not just marooned on UVA’s campus. It feels like an experience of the culture of the town as well.
In addition, there is the Virginia Arts of the Book Center, a group that works to make bookmaking, binding, and paper making more available. The Center offers seminars on making books and analyzing book culture. If you want to learn to set metal type by hand, this would be the place to go.
Most importantly, when visiting Charlottesville, you want to walk the iconic downtown area. There are some fantastic book stores here, including Blue Whale Books, that specializes in used and rare books (according to their updates, they just got in some medical lithographs from 1833) and the New Dominion Bookshop, which feels like such a classic independent store. New Dominion boasts recent events and I really REALLY wish I could have seen Thomas Pierce when he read in town and New Dominion hosted his sales. Dang.
While you’re downtown, you really should eat since Charlottesville is slowly getting attention for beer, booze and meals. So. Buy a book. Read it while eating a crepe or dumpling.
I’m guessing that I’m missing things here– and I know that I’m missing some fantastic book stores I’ve never come across. Feel free to point out what I’ve overlooked– there’s gotta be more.
Thanks to UVA, Virginia Festival of the Book, and New Dominion Book Store for the images.
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