An April 2005 trip
to Washington, D.C. by Idler
Quote: From fabulous one-offs to annual extravaganzas that have come to symbolize this capital city, Washington, D.C. provides an astonishing wealth of festivals. Here are some of this local's favorites.
The first Folklife Festival I attended was about eighteen years ago, and I was instantly smitten. Each festival showcases different nations, regions of the U.S., and themes, and I remember that the first festival I attended featured Hawaii. It was my first exposure to authentic Hawaiian (versus the tourist version) culture and dance, and I was enraptured. Years later, when I travelled to Hawaii, I felt I’d already had a preview of what to expect.
That’s the best thing about living here near D.C., really. Just stay put and the world comes to you through amazingly varied immigrant communities, the embassies, and visiting foreign dignitaries, cultural alliances such as the Japan-America Society and Maison Française, and major institutions such as the Smithsonian. I soon discovered after moving here that having the Smithsonian more or less on my doorstep is especially rewarding as there is much more to the Smithsonian than its first-class museums. Their Resident Associates Program and free festivals, tours, concerts, and lecture series are all outstanding.
My favorite Smithsonian-sponsored event, by far, is the Folklife Festival. Immense tents are set up the length of the Mall, with multiple performance stages, storytelling tents, cooking demonstrations, arts and crafts displays, and all manner of cultural demonstrations, ranging from whisky distilling (that was the year the festival featured Scotland, naturally) to the creation of mud-dyed cloth, or bogolan, by artisans from Mali.
I could go on and on about the Folklife Festival, but I’ll confine myself to one particular year, which was surely the most outstanding to date. In addition to the Smithsonian, The Silk Road Festival of 2002 was sponsored by an impressive array of backers, such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Aga Khan Trust. It was an all-out two-week extravaganza that attempted to bring to Washington the cultures and ambience of the traditional trade route that stretches from Venice, Italy to Nara, Japan. Rajeev Sethi, dubbed by one newspaper as the "high priest of design," transformed the Mall into a gigantic visual panorama of the Silk Road, with scaled-down versions of the Great Gate in Nara, Japan, at the eastern end near the Capitol, and St. Mark's Square in Venice at the western end near the Washington Monument. Between the two end points, festival visitors "travelled" through Eurasia, via Istanbul, Samarkand, and Xi'an.
Not content with merely erecting scale versions of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or Registan Square in Samarkand, the organizers brought hundreds upon hundreds of craftspeople, musicians, and "living cultural treasures" to the Mall. It’s not everyday you get to meet someone from Ulan Batur or watch the entire silk-making process from cocoon to woven garment, but the Silk Road Project made it possible. Sitting rapt listening to the Niazi Brothers play traditional Sufi music from Pakistan one afternoon, I heard a commotion behind me and turned to see a procession of camels – indeed, an entire caravan -- proceeding at a stately pace up the Mall. I was tempted to leave the performance and see what they were up to, but didn’t –- I had just discovered that I really really liked traditional Sufi devotional music.
Most intriguing to me were the nomadic musicians demonstrating traditional overtone or throat singing, playing bowed fiddles, and (through interpreters) relating songs and stories of the steppes. These Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Kazakh, and Uyghur traditional people did an spectacular job of transporting the aura of the wide-open spaces of their homelands to downtown Washington; in fact, I’ve been hankering to visit someplace like Tuva ever since. If you haven’t heard traditional throat-singing performed live, it’s something of a shock to realize that the range of sounds and tones produced comes from one person’s throat.
Coming the year after September 11th, too, this festival provided a much-needed cultural exchange with people from the Middle East. It was reassuring to see how well received participants from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan were. Suddenly, these parts of the world seemed more relevant to Americans, whereas we had been largely indifferent to and ignorant of them before. The festival provided an opportunity to see the faces and experience the cultures of places that had been mere names recited on the evening news. Many of these encounters defied the cultural stereotypes we've been conditioned to expect. For example, one fellow from Iran sang uproarious songs detailing scandalous romantic goings on, flying in the face of the notion of a monolithic, puritanical Islamic culture. No translation was needed… he acted both the male and female parts quite convincingly, practically bringing down the house as the audience doubled over with laughter.
Each day I visited the Silk Road Festival – I spent several days there and still didn’t manage to take it all in – I stopped to see what progress was being made on the Pakistani painted truck. Elaborately painted and decorated trucks are an art form in countries such as Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and elsewhere, with truck owners vying to see who can create the most eye-catching design. The vehicles are always protected from the "evil eye" with large painted eyes and other talismans, such as an old shoe hanging from the bumper, while the trucks’ interiors feature beads, mirrors, bells, and every comfort imaginable, not to mention kick-ass sound systems that blast regional pop music as the trucks roll down the highway.
The Smithsonian brought two of the best truck painters from Pakistan to create a unique festival-themed vehicle, and this proved to be one of the biggest hits of the festival. The two young men spoke only Urdu, with barely a word of English between them -- indeed, when the festival organizers first visited Karachi and asked them to come to the festival, the two had thought the request was a joke. However, before long they found themselves on a jet plane headed for Washington, where they managed to communicate quite well with gestures and smiles alone. They set up "shop" on the Mall and began transforming a battered gray 1976 Bedford truck into a thing of beauty. They also spent a great deal of time posing for pictures and lapping up the attention their brightly colored and lavishly festooned truck was getting. The two men seemed absolutely dazed by the warm reception they received. And the truck? It held pride of place for months afterwards on the lawn in front of the Sackler Museum of Asian Art before eventually being moved to an indoor location.
Panels from the Pakistani painted truck
After attending this festival, I carried away a revived interest in the traditional music of Silk Road cultures. Before closing day, I visited the "bazaar" on the Mall to buy CDs to supplement my collection. I wish now that I’d snapped up more recordings of the music featured in the festival, such as the entrancing gypsy-influenced Manganiyar music of Rajasthan, as I’ve had trouble finding it since. But perhaps I’ll find it yet, as I recently read that the Smithsonian plans to make its entire collection of traditional folk music available online at its new Global Sounds website, charging 99 cents per downloadable track. Why, I could probably spend a small fortune on Sufi devotional music alone!
This upcoming year’s festival will feature music and culture from Oman, as well as showcasing the role of music in Latino cultures as part of an ongoing five-year Smithsonian project, "Nuestra Música." There will be many evening performances and dances, not to mention the usual array of wonderful daytime demonstrations and events. If you’re in Washington in late June or early July, vengan a gozar de la bella música y a bailar!
I had a long meeting on the Saturday morning of the Cherry Blossom Festival parade (bummer!), so I missed the parade but arrived in time to take in the afternoon’s festivities at the Sakura Matsuri. By the time I arrived, the street festival was in full swing, with an absolutely beautiful spring day bringing people out in droves. The media had fueled the crowds, too, by trumpeting the fact that, for once, the day of the parade would also be the day of peak bloom for the cherry blossoms themselves.
The Metro coming downtown was just about the most crowded I’ve ever seen it outside of Fourth of July. I actually got off one tightly packed train and waited for the next, which turned out to be only slightly less cramped. Adding to the congestion was the number of cyclists who were participating in a Cherry Blossom ride who had brought bikes onto the train. Then there was my pet peeve, the massive double-wide strollers favored by modern parents, the Humvees of baby transport. The Metro ride was, in short, a mess.
But that inconvenience seemed a trifle once I exited the station and was swept up into the street scene. Crowds moved at a leisurely stroll through the grassy central plaza of the Federal Triangle and along the broad corridors of the surrounding blocks. The restrained-looking government buildings formed an odd backdrop for the clusters of bright balloons, the giant inflatable Sapporo beer bottle, the rows of tent booths, and the colorful festival banners. I wondered for a moment why the festival hadn’t been held on the Mall, but then quickly realized that the National Park Service and the Smithsonian have a stranglehold on that prime real estate. However, the Japan-America Society did just fine making use of the Federal Triangle area, whose streets are normally deserted on the weekend.
Lines for all the Japanese food vendors were long, so I snacked on candied nuts from a line-free vendor and amused myself watching the karaoke stage, where the brave (or simply inebriated) belted off-key renditions of such timeless tunes as "Stand by Your Man." I was tempted to enter one of the fenced-off official beer-imbibing areas myself but got sidetracked by the arts-and-crafts booths, not to mention all the stands selling everything from elaborate hairpins to earth-toned pottery.
I stopped to ask a festival volunteer for directions to the main performance stage, but no sooner had I asked than I heard the boom of taiko drums and knew which direction to go. I made a beeline for the stage, hoping to catch the performance by the Tamagawa University Dance & Taiko Group. I’d missed the Drum Festival held at the Kennedy Center the day before but had heard this group had delivered a knock-out performance. (Happily, it can be viewed online in a streamed version, though, of course, that doesn’t match a live performance.)
I’ve been to dozens of folk and cultural festivals and seen hundreds of performances, but this company put on one of the most dazzling displays I’ve ever seen. Tamagawa University Dance & Taiko Group is one of Japan’s premiere university performing ensembles, and it’s easy to see why. My first impression was that Tamagawa U. must have one helluva set of selection criteria. The men and women were all of a uniform type – tall, willowy, and graceful - but they must surely have also been selected on the basis of dazzling smiles. I’ve never seen such smiles – the megawatts flashed at a Hollywood awards ceremony pale in comparison. Their smiles, combined with the enthusiasm of their dancing and drumming, proclaimed, "We live to do this!"
The drumming was done chiefly by the men, with the all-out fervor and athleticism that’s the hallmark of taiko drumming. The art of taiko is over 2,000 years old, but the Tamagawa group made it seem positively contemporary. There was a joyful camaraderie among the drummers, too, that was charming to watch. The synchronized arms-high movements and broad spilts stance assumed by the drummers were especially effective.
The women primarily performed in dances, usually holding props such as batons or fans. My favorite piece featured bright-purple parasols twirled and arrayed with consummate grace. Whoever does the choreography for this group has a wonderful eye for harmony and line. Another highly entertaining dance featured both the men and women, presumably evoking a bathhouse setting. The women paraded saucily about with yellow towels draped around their necks or mocked "toweling off" motions, shimmying with the towels held behind them as they "dried" their backsides. The men, emerging from the wings, beheld this bevy of bathing beauties and immediately set about courting and flirting with the women, falling backwards (presumably in awe and amazement) whenever the ladies affected a particularly breathtaking stance.
In fact, I had a hard time deciding which was cuter, the guys or the gals. But I knew one thing for sure: if the Tamagawa University Dance & Taiko Group performs at next year’s Sakura Matsuri, I’ll definitely make a point to be there.
My husband always stubbornly insists on driving to Washington, parking in Outer Mongolia (herein defined as somewhere beyond HUD), but he was out of town the day of the Kite Festival and so I sensibly took the Metro. The crowd getting off at the Smithsonian station spilled off the escalator and was immediately greeted by gusts of wind that sent loose hats careening down the long grassy expanse of the Mall. Kites are associated with windy days, of course, but this was a case of too much of a good thing. The stiff 20-30mph winds played havoc with many of the kites, plus the unseasonably cold weather had most folks dressed up as if they were going to, well, Outer Mongolia. I’m well-insulated by nature (ahem) and seldom feel the cold, but I found I had to thaw out with several ‘hot tea breaks’ during the day at the nearby Pavilion Café.
But despite the cold and the wind, the festival was still a success. There’s something wonderfully poignant and hopeful about kites. Spirits rise with as the kites ascend, then swoop and dip… and sometimes crash, of course. Most of the people who were on the Mall for the festival had store-bought kites and were strictly in the amateur class, but there were two large roped-off demonstration fields in which the competitors flew ingeniously engineered and elaborately decorated kites, many demonstrating "hot tricks" kite stunts.
One kite caught my eye even before it was airborne. Two men were laying out its immense tail – meters long – and wrestling with the enormous kite itself. It came as little surprise to me when this entry later won the National Air & Space Museum’s aerodynamics award.
Actually, it was a little hard to tell exactly which events for the competition were going on at any one time. The wind caused problems for amateurs and pros alike, and the Smithsonian staff seemed to be struggling to impart order to the proceedings. Somehow I managed to miss the "costumed" portion of the competition, (must’ve been during a tea break), a fact I regretted when I later saw the winners, the "Holmes Family Pirates," accept their award uttering convincing "ARRRGGH"s.
It came as something of a surprise to me how seriously... no, wait, that’s the wrong word... how wholeheartedly people threw themselves into flying kites. There are no fewer than three kite societies in the greater Washington area (perhaps more), and they were all amply represented, not to mention people from all over the country who had come to participate, such as members of the "Ohio Society for the Elevation of Kites."
And never let it be said that kite-flying is a gentle sport – that is, certainly not when battling rokkaku kites are in the sky. The day ended with a battle royale among these traditional six-sided Japanese kites. The kite handlers employ the most cut-throat of flying techniques, seeking to ‘ground’ opposing kites with a variety of impressive maneuvers. When a rokakku’s line was severed, it plummeted earthward in an impressive arc. Amazingly, the rokkaku seemed to sustain little damage from the impact and were soon back in the air.
Despite the cold weather and buffeting winds, scores of families, many with young children, turned out. The kids were suitably bundled up, some looking like fat little penguins as they ran at a waddle holding kites up to the wind. Along one side of the demonstration field, a bubble machine sent cascades of enormous iridescent bubbles racing on the wind, and this proved a huge hit with young and old alike. No one came anywhere near the bubble machine without breaking into a silly grin or doing a bobbing "catch that bubble!" shuffle with complete strangers.
They should set up a bubble machine on the floors of the House and Senate whenever things get particularly rancorous in Congress, I think. Or maybe just let the Republicans and Democrats duke it out with rokkaku.
I took a special interest in the festival this year, as I’m travelling to Japan in May and am immersing myself as much as possible in all things Japanese, so I devoted several days to the Cherry Blossom Festival, going downtown on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the final week. What I learned from my treks is that if you want to see the blossoms in relative peace and quiet (and that’s relative, mind you), then it’s really necessary to visit the most popular spot, the Tidal Basin, fairly early on a weekday. Forget about seeing the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin on the day of the parade – you need the scrum-busting skills of a rugby player just to make your way through the crowds.
Luck was with me the Wednesday that I roused myself earlier than normal and took the bus from Poolesville to the Metro in Rockville and then into D.C. Just three days before, the weather had been cold and blustery for the Smithsonian Kite Festival, but on Tuesday, the fickle Atlantic Coast weather turned unexpectedly benign. Temperatures rose, the sun came out... and the blossoms began to open.
A word about the history of the trees: Ninety-three years ago, the mayor of Tokyo presented 3,000 cherry trees to the people of Washington, D.C. as a gesture of friendship. Only around 125 of the original trees that were planted around the Tidal Basin remain, but there are more than 3,000 trees today, as cherry trees have been planted and replanted all throughout the town. Cherry blossoms are the emblems of Washington, D.C. (along with the monuments), and the festival attracts over a million visitors each year.
I arrived on the Mall by 9am and made a beeline for the Tidal Basin. Most of the people there that time of day were busy photographing the blossoms; the best light for catching the classic view of the Jefferson Memorial is in the morning. In the afternoon, the sun is behind the monument. Plus, the cherry blossoms just seem to look their freshest in the morning, though I can attest that they also look quite alluring at night lit only by streetlamp.
Unfortunately, there’s still a considerable amount of construction/terrorist-proofing going on around the Washington Monument and the new World War II Memorial, but the real challenge to the morning visitor is threading through rush-hour traffic. D.C. is one of the few places where I always watch and obey the pedestrian-crossing signals; even then, there’s no assurance that some type-A maniac won’t round the corner and try to zoom past.
There was scarcely any wind at 9am – another benefit of coming in the morning – providing near-ideal conditions for appreciating and photographing the blossoms. I strolled past the paddleboat rental docks and along the east side of the Tidal Basin toward the Jefferson Memorial. Young lovers find this walk irresistible, and more than a few brides and grooms use it as a wedding photo backdrop. Everyone wants a photo of themselves framed by the boughs of the cherry trees with the glistening white memorial in the background. I must’ve taken a dozen photos for couples and families just traversing the mile or so around the Tidal Basin.
It took me a while to reach the Jefferson Memorial, as I stopped practically every other minute to take in some new vista. By the time I reached it, the day’s entertainment at the stage in front of the memorial was about to begin. I got a schedule from a volunteer and noted there would be a traditional Indian dance performance later in the day. I kept on walking, making a side excursion to the George Mason statue, which was ringed by a stunning display of deep pink saucer magnolias, bright-yellow forsythia (I am not, on the whole, a fan of forsythia, but this display was stunning), and cheerful plantings of daffodils and pansies. By this time, the tour buses were clogging all the roads near the Tidal Basin, and great hordes of tourists were descending clutching disposable cameras and sunhats. It was a zoo, but a very agreeable one.
There are actually four main types of cherry trees planted in Washington, and they bloom at different times. The Weeping Higan, which ranges from a deep pink to white, blooms first, followed about a week later by the white Yoshino and pale pink Akebono cherry trees. Pink Kwanzan cherry trees, laden with heavy clusters of double flowers, bloom last. The Tidal Basin is noted for its 1,400 Yoshino trees, while other impressive displays are at the West and Potomac Parks and the Washington Monument grounds.
Akebono cherry blossoms
It’s illegal to climb the trees or pick the their blossoms, but I still saw clueless visitors hoisting their offspring into the branches of trees. I later read in the Washington Post that the main damage sustained by the trees each year is caused the compaction of the soil over the trees' roots caused by the trampling of millions of feet, slowly killing the trees in the process. It’s actually hard not to walk on the areas below the trees at some points because the concrete path that runs around the Tidal Basin is fairly narrow. Two people walking abreast are more or less the width of the path in certain places. (That’s another reason to come early on a weekday morning to do this walk!)
I wended my way back to the performance stage and watched a performance by the Jayamangala Indian Dance Company – three young ladies (the youngest, I learned, was only ten) with the poise and precision of experienced dancers. Then I continued my trek around the Tidal Basin, admiring some of the extravagantly twisted older trees and stopping by the FDR Memorial, which, somehow, I’d never managed to visit before. By the time I’d made the complete circuit, it was well into the afternoon, and I was starving. The sight of groups of people basking in the sun and picnicking beneath the cherry trees made me wish I’d had the foresight to bring a packed lunch.
I made my way over toward the Smithsonian castle for a snack – a longish trek, but as there are unfortunately no Metro stops close to the main monuments my only other option would have been a cab. I considered it, but it was such a lovely day that it just didn’t seem right. I felt positively revived, however, upon entering the Enid Haupt Garden fronting the Smithsonian Castle on the Independence Avenue side. Here the saucer magnolias were giving the cherry trees a run for their money. The entire large courtyard was an almost overpowering display of PINK. Often in this region, a late frost will mar the saucer magnolia blossoms before they bloom, turning them an unsightly brown, but not this year. This year everything was perfection.
I had a one gigabyte card in my digital camera, and somehow I managed to fill it that afternoon taking pictures. Was I content with that one perfect day at the festival? No; I came back on Friday for a second dose of cherry trees and then on Saturday afternoon to take in the Sakura Matsuri Street Festival. Once you’ve gotten into the spirit of the Cherry Blossom Festival, you see, it’s hard to stay away from it.
Tuesday, September 21, 2004, the day the museum opened, began with an amazing procession of thousands of native people from all over the globe, many in traditional regalia. I didn’t manage to make it down early for the first day’s festivities (in fact, I had just come back late the night before from the IgoUgo get-together in Vancouver), but I managed to get down to the Mall later in the day for an unforgettable afternoon. What struck me most was the incredible diversity of native peoples that were assembled. This was a very special day for them, and the pride and sense of inclusion they felt was palpable.
Moments after exiting the Smithsonian Metro station, I stopped in my tracks just to watch festival participants pass by. I don’t ever think I’ve seen such beautiful traditional clothing – beaded, feathered, embroidered, and elaborately worked in all manner of materials. This was a day for unabashed picture-taking, as people who had earlier marched in the procession continued to wear their regalia throughout the day. Perhaps the most striking ensembles were worn by an Aztec dance group hailing from San Francisco, but, really, everywhere I turned were there native people – from as far away as New Zealand all the way up to the northern reaches of Canada.
I’d just spent time in Vancouver at the Anthropology Museum of British Columbia, so I was glad to see so many people from the Pacific Northwest, including the Git-Hoan dancers of the Tsimshian people, who performed traditional dances wearing beautifully carved and painted masks. Throughout the day, I gravitated toward the Dance Stage, which featured one impressive group after another. Dancers from Rangimarie, a pan-tribal Maori performing arts group, gave the museum’s new director, Richard West, an honorary welcome in a heartfelt ceremony. Later, on the same stage, I was so impressed by the performance by the Halau O Kekuhi group, practitioners of the art of hula and oli (chant), that I made sure to take in their performance again on another day of the festival.
Indeed, Hawai’i was particularly well represented. Outside the new museum, large volcanic rocks "on loan" from our fiftieth state (for it is said to anger the gods when pieces of the landscape, such as rocks, are permanently removed from the islands) have been set in the reflective pool running the length of the building, just below to the shimmering waters that cascade down the side of the building. I was happy to hear Ledward Ka’apana, one of the masters of ki ho’alu, or slack-key guitar; I’d seen him the winter before at the Barns of Wolftrap in Vienna, VA, during the annual Slack Key Festival, and it was a pleasure to hear him once again.
The evening featured a star-studded concert with such well-known musicians as Buffy Sainte-Marie, Rita Coolidge (now we’re talkin’ ‘bout my generation, folks!), and Lila Downs. Before the performance ended, though, we got in the immensely long line to enter the museum. Timed passes had been given out earlier in the day, and ours were for 10pm. In fact, it was around 11pm when we finally entered the building, but it was worth the wait. The museum stayed open all night long, with dancing, drumming, and singing taking place continuously in the Sacred Circle, the focal point of the atrium of the museum. Only the thought that our carriage (the Metro) would soon into a pumpkin (that is, shut down) sent us scurrying home well past midnight.
We came back a few days later, though, for more of the same. The festival stretched over 6 days, though the first day was unquestionably the most unique, as there were so many people wearing traditional clothes. Still, we wanted to bring several friends with us to see some of the musicians, exhibits, and dancers that we hadn’t been able to take in on Tuesday. Somehow, for example, we’d missed the amazing "scissor dancers" from Peru, who performed jaipanakay, "the dance of confrontation," with almost unbelievable agility and strength. We watched young Diné (Navajo) carry on the traditions of their people through decorous but lively dances; ate traditional foods, such as fry bread, authentically prepared at the food tents; relaxed in the shade while the Aloha Boys played backyard-style Hawaiian music; and listened to traditional Inuit throat singing and storytelling.
Although this festival was what I’d call a fabulous one-off never to be repeated, performances are still regularly held at the new National Museum of the American Indian – the Sacred Circle is an ideal performing space – so if you do plan on visiting the museum while in Washington, check their website’s event page to see if there will be an performance or gathering. Also, it’s worth noting that the National PowWow, sponsored by the NMAI, will be held at the nearby MCI Center from August 12 to 14, 2005.
I anticipate this one-day festival the way a kid looks forward to Christmas. Beginning as a relatively low-key affair in 2001, the first festival was held in large pavilion tents set up on the West Lawn of the Capitol, each tent devoted to a broad literary genre, such as Fiction & Imagination, History & Current Events, or Mystery & Suspense. Noted authors such as Stephen Ambrose, Michael Beschloss, and George Will read from their work, answered questions from the audience, and participated in panel discussions.
The first festival was such a success that it was decided to make it a yearly event. The 2002 festival was larger, though still held on the West Lawn of the Capitol, but by 2003, it had grown to such proportions that it had to be moved to the Mall proper, stretching all the way from 7th to 14th Streets. The festival had greatly expanded, with more tents accommodating more types of writers and books. Last year’s festival was the biggest yet, noticeably better-promoted and with an even broader spectrum of literary talent.
Washington has always been a bookish town – an impressive number of riders on the Metro on any given morning have their noses buried in books. This is even more the case in this age of the Washington political biography (or hagiography), government agency tell-all, or partisan diatribe. It seems that nearly everyone who’s anyone in D.C. has a book to promote, yet the Book Festival manages to be far more than a gussied-up book promotional tour. Instead, it’s an egalitarian slice of what America likes to read, with a respectful nod toward writers who have shaped public policy and influenced the way Americans think.
Somehow – and this is the thing I admire most about the festival – it has avoided becoming too "Washingtonian" or geared towards policy wonks; in fact, it’s become an extremely popular family event with an impressive number of children’s and young adult authors represented. Many of the displays and entertainment are targeted at kids, such as a full-scale replica of the "Magic School Bus" to climb on board and explore. This, I think, is Laura Bush’s doing. Good for her.
Since the festival is refreshingly non-stuffy and egalitarian, it caters to just about every taste. Avid readers of romance novels and readers of weighty historical tomes alike will find something of interest. Last year’s festival included such popular authors as Heloise (as in "Hints from Heloise)," travel writer Arthur Frommer, basketball player and autobiographer Kareem Adbul-Jabbar, one-man "Goosebumps" assembly line R.L. Stine, blockbuster thriller writer Clive Cussler, and PBS anchor Jim Lehr. It’s exciting to catch even a glimpse of faces seen previously only on the back of book jackets or television screens, and it’s even a bigger thrill to get a favorite author to sign a book at one of the extremely popular book signings. Some authors go to almost heroic lengths to accommodate the droves of people who turn up clutching their well-thumbed copies of favorite books or the brand-new books they’ve purchased at the Barnes & Noble tent set up nearby.
Another great thing about this festival is that it’s held in late September or early October, a far more civilized time in Washington than the summer. I’ve managed to attend three of the four festivals held so far, and I wouldn’t dream of missing the 2005 National Book Festival, which will be held on Saturday, September 24th.
In fact, the hardest part of attending the festival is deciding which sessions to attend. For any given hour of the day, there always seem to be two or three different talks I’d like to hear. For me, it’s a matter of choosing authors whose work I’ve long admired along with a sprinkling of authors I may have heard of but never read. Thus, a highlight of last year’s festival for me was hearing seminal science fiction writer Fredrik Pohl, now in his eighties, reminisce about the early days of science fiction publishing in the U.S. He recalled attending the "first science fiction convention ever held," but noted that, "Unfortunately, the records for this event have been lost. I know this because I was the one who lost them!" Later in the same tent, a much younger writer, Neil Gaiman, mesmerized the audience by reading from his work-in-progress, a book that, by the sound of it, will significantly add to the membership of the ever-growing Neil Gaiman fan club.
I listened to Nathaniel Philbrick read from his latest historical account of seafaring explorers, Ron Chernow discuss his bestselling biography of Alexander Hamilton, David Macaulay explain the process behind creating one of his elaboratly illustrated architectural books, and Azar Nafisi describe Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Later, while standing in line to have David Maucalay sign my beloved copy of his irreverent classic, Motel of the Mysteries, I chatted with fellow Macaulay fans and assorted booklovers. I noticed a tremendously long line snaking down the Mall and assumed it was for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But no – this was the line for Azar Nafisi, whose Reading Lolita in Tehran has been a huge success. I hadn’t read her book but had been intrigued by her talk, so I bought a copy in the sales tent and joined line to have her sign it. It was a long wait, but it seemed short because the entire line became an ad hoc literary discussion group, with everyone animatedly recalling favorite parts of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Booklovers love to talk almost as much as they love to read.
Remarkably, when I finally drew near the front of the line, I saw that Azar Nafisi still had a fresh smile and kind word for each person who approached her. What a wonderful lady, I thought to myself. I could see why her students in Iran had been willing to risk being arrested for attending the private classes she had organized in her home.
On the Metro ride home, I began reading my newly signed copy of Reading Lolita in Tehran, feeling a special connection to the book after hearing the author speak and seeing her gentle smile. I reflected that this is what the book festival was all about: connecting authors and readers in a personal way, adding a new dimension to the normally solitary pursuit of reading.