Washington, D.C. Stories and Tips

The National Book Festival

Nathaniel Philbrick at the National Book Festival Photo, Washington, D.C., United States

George W. Bush has done exactly two things in office that this lifelong Democrat approves of: letting government employees keep their frequent flyer miles and starting the National Book Festival. Actually, I should give credit where credit is due: Laura Bush, our unofficial "librarian in chief," is really the mover and shaker behind the National Book Festival.

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.

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