(1) Find people you like spending time with (and who like spending time with you, I suppose!) and your experience will be ten times more enjoyable than otherwise. I have heard some people say that they find the SBL a bit of a maze and rather overwhelming. I have never found that, and perhaps because I have been lucky enough to spend time with people whose company I greatly enjoy. The intellectual stimulation will often come more from those small gatherings with friends over a beer than it will at the sessions.
(2) Don't be over ambitious about how many sessions you can get to. I used to treat the SBL a bit like the way I used to treat the Christmas Radio Times and TV Times when I was a kid -- so much packed in that I hardly had five minutes spare.
(3) Don't feel obliged to stay for the whole two-and-a-half hour session. Several times I've got stuck in the world's most boring papers by accident because I was interested in the paper before it or after it. Unlike the BNTC, where one is encouraged to be loyal, you are allowed to be a tart at the SBL. People arrive and leave as papers begin and end. I remember my first SBL in 1998 and just as I was finishing my paper, loads of people started arriving so that they could hear Joel Marcus who was up next.
(4) Try not to burn the candle at both ends, socializing until late when you have a breakfast meeting. To be honest, I am talking to myself here. I walk round the SBL perpetually exhausted because I don't have the discipline to go to bed early when I have to be up at 6 for a breakfast meeting. Yet it seems necessary to arrange the breakfast meetings because it's one of the best ways of guaranteeing a slot to arrange a meeting.
(5) Speaking of the breakfasts, here's something I wrote in my blog a little over a year ago:
Talking of breakfast, here's a tip for those at SBL on a budget (as I have often been in the past): get to one of those great American breakfast buffets and eat to your heart's content. Don't be put off by earnest looking professor types who only visit the buffet once. Keep going for as long as you can. Eat so much that you won't want lunch. You can then make it through to the evening when you'll be just peckish enough to enjoy something else. In fact you might even be invited to one of those receptions where there's lots of food in the evening too, and on days like that, you've only bought breakfast and the budget is looking healthier than it might have been.Birmingham never gave me enough to travel, and so troughing my face at breakfast was my standard survival strategy. And the American breakfast buffets are great, though for Brits it can be a little off-putting to see Americans putting their fruit on the same plate as their sausage and bacon, or worse, putting corn syrup on their scrambled egg.
(6) And speaking of the receptions, they are a great way of meeting people, and can be fun. They are held by publishers, universities and others and are often generous in their invitations, so (once again) be a tart and get yourself invited to a reception.
(7) On the question of reading your paper, I have outspoken views which I have blogged in the past and will no doubt blog again in the future. The gist of my concern is this: far too many people simply read their paper out at SBL sessions, sometimes in the most inarticulate way imaginable. The particular problem is speed-reading. People write their fifteen page screed and decide that they are going to read through the whole lot if it kills them, whether or not it fits into the time. Part of the difficulty here is that sessions are not always well chaired, i.e. they are not always ruthlessly chaired.