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Bonding beyond the written word An author's message

The Festival of Reading lets book worms meet authors.

By MELANIE AVE
Published October 29, 2006


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ST. PETERSBURG - Seldom does the reader meet the writer.

No, theirs is an impersonal relationship, where two people connect only through black words on bound white pages. They laugh, cry and learn together without ever speaking.

That changed Saturday.

The setting was the 14th annual St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading, where hundreds of bookworms turned out to hear their favorite authors and to snag bargain-priced paperbacks.

Jill Agnew, a Gulfport artist and self-described bookaholic, was one of them.

Her mother began taking her to the library as a toddler. Today, she has books lining every room of her house.

"I collect books like a disease," Agnew said. "I have to have something going at all times. My husband says I won't live long enough to read them all."

She came to the festival to meet Arianna Huffington, a political commentator and liberal blogger, who recently wrote On Becoming Fearless in Love, Work, and Life.

Years ago, Agnew read one of Huffington's older books, called Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend. The book detailed the transformation of a chubby, shy girl into a celebrated soprano.

"I was so moved by the depth of the book," she said. "It was a brilliant piece of literature."

So when Huffington walked to the podium and pushed her sleek golden hair behind her ears, Agnew was there, on the third row, as close as she could get.

The author drew one of the largest crowds at the festival, held at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Huffington encouraged the audience to conquer their fears, to take control of their lives.

Women worry too much about their bodies and millions get plastic surgery younger and younger, she said.

"I call it now pre-emptive plastic surgery, and like pre-emptive war, it doesn't work," Huffington said, as the audience roared and clapped at her verbal shot at President Bush.

"I throw in politics subtly, okay? I'm not mentioning any names."

Huffington encouraged the audience to deal with their inner critical voice - "the obnoxious roommate in the head" - like a naughty child.

"From the moment we wake up and we look in the mirror, the voice says, 'Oh my God, I look awful,' " she said. "You men are better at it.

"You can basically shut the voice out and go watch a football game. Women tend to stick around and argue with the voice or believe in the voice."

Agnew laughed and whispered, "I have to get her book."

"Fearlessness," Huffington said, "is not the absence of fear. It's the mastery of fear. That's the most important message I can leave you with today."

As the crowd rose in applause, Agnew headed outside to buy Huffington's book at the Barnes & Noble tent for $21.99.

But she would not be satisfied until she met the author in person. Minutes later she joined dozens of fans, waiting for an autograph.

When it was her turn, she told Huffington how much she loved the Maria Callas book.

"It was brilliant," Agnew told the writer behind the table. "After reading this book ... I passed it around to my writer girlfriends."

"Oh my gosh," Huffington said. "Thank you. Thank you so much. Take my card if you want."

Huffington drew her pen and made the relationship personal, at least for a moment. She wrote: "To Jill. Glad you liked Maria Callas. Arianna."

Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

[Last modified October 28, 2006, 23:35:28]


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