Sad news today: Nashville's own John Egerton, one of the region's strongest supporters of all things literary, has died at the age of 78.
Born in Atlanta, Egerton moved to Nashville in the 1960s and spent much of his career chronicling the city and the Civil Rights movement. Later in life, he was known best as a food writer, writing and editing several influential books on Southern cuisine and launching the Southern Foodways Alliance in 1999. But he will be remembered most by the Nashville literary community for his immense enthusiasm for books. Egerton was a fan of Nashville's independent bookstores, including the long-gone Mill's and Zibart's. He encouraged and advised local writers—and local literary entrepreneurs, like BookPage's own Michael Zibart. From the first, Egerton was an enthusiastic BookPage supporter, lending his influence to help Zibart recruit the best freelance reviewers, and himself contributing to several early issues.
Perhaps Egerton's most lasting literary legacy, though, is the Southern Festival of Books. After a trip to the Miami Book Fair, he returned with a vision of launching a similar event to celebrate the Southern writing he loved. With the support of Ingram Books and the publishing community, the first Southern Festival of Books was held in October 1989. Egerton, a longtime friend of Jimmy Carter, was able to convince the former president to sign his latest book at the Southern Festival, ensuring the event's success and renewal for the next year.
Judging from the words of those who knew him, Egerton spent his life working to make the world a kinder, better and more literate place. His passion for books—and for Southern culture—might best be summed up in his own words, from the very first column he wrote in BookPage.
The conventional wisdom has it that television and the other visual/electronic media are transforming us into a society of viewers with less and less interest in or need for books. I sometimes believe that myself, or at least fear that it may be happening.
But then I see new books—good books—by writers in the region whose names I'm just beginning to recognize, and others by authors long familiar to me, and still others by people I've never heard of, and my confidence grows that no matter where the rest of the country is heading with the printed word, the South is moving in the right direction, and picking up speed.