By GAIL FINEBERG
Readers and collectors by the thousands put down their books long enough on a damp, gray Saturday to see and hear their favorite authors at the second National Book Festival organized and sponsored by the Library and hosted by first lady Laura Bush.
Neither the weather nor grim news reports of regional sniper attacks kept visitors away from the Oct. 12 event. According to festival organizers, Capitol and National Park police estimated that between 40,000 and 45,000 people came to the festival, an increase from last year's estimate of 30,000 visitors.
"It's amazing, absolutely amazing, that this many people want to be associated with books," Chief of Staff Jo Ann Jenkins said as she surveyed long lines of book lovers waiting on the National Mall late in the day to collect authors' signatures.
Thousands more had swarmed into white pavilions on the Capitol's soggy west lawn to listen to the tellers of America's stories—among them a Navajo poet, a cowboy poet-storyteller, and the nation's poet laureate; chroniclers of the lives of presidents, Civil War history, and African American history; Chinese and Cuban-born creators of children's books; a blind mountain climber and deaf storytellers; award-winning journalists; and popular fiction writers from all walks of life.
"Keep this up, and in 10 years you'll have 100,000 visitors," said bibliophile Malcolm Bliss of Virginia, who with his wife, Judith, stood in lines for six hours straight with three duffle bags full of first editions they wanted festival authors to sign.
"We have talked to people from all over the East Coast, people who drove here from as far away as Connecticut and North Carolina, just to attend this festival," he said. "This is the best organized … best publicized book festival I have ever attended," said Bliss, who frequents book-signings. "And all the staff here are so nice," his wife added.
From the opening White House ceremony, which featured first ladies Laura Bush and her "fellow book lover and friend" Russian first lady Ludmila Putin, to biographer David McCullough's closing exultation of books, the event was a celebration of intellect and imagination, of writers' wit and wisdom.
"We have so much to gain from this festival," Mrs. Bush said during a brief kick-off ceremony in the East Wing following a White House breakfast for more than 70 authors, illustrators, storytellers, and the festival's organizers.
The founder of Texas state book festivals seven years ago and the Library's partner in hosting the National Book Festival for the past two years, Mrs. Bush extolled the importance of literacy and of families sharing a love a reading.
For those who are never without a paperback book to open at any opportunity, or who have "bedside tables piled high with books to read before we sleep—or after we should have gone to sleep, let this festival be a reminder of the joy of the bookworm," said the wife of the president, who began her career as a school teacher and librarian.
Introducing Russia's first lady, whom she had invited to be her National Book Festival guest, Mrs. Bush recalled her visit to the Pushkin Museum as a guest of Mrs. Putin. Together they had walked through a long hall lined with books Mrs. Putin had studied as a St. Petersburg State University student of Roman languages. Mrs. Bush noted that Mrs. Putin is interested in supporting her country's provincial libraries.
"It is important for all people in the world, and in the United States, to be educated and to read books," Mrs. Putin said in translated Russian. "I agree with Laura, that books must not be forgotten; we must be free of computer ego. We must not forget we do not serve computers; computers serve us."
Mrs. Putin later spent several hours at the Library, asking the Librarian, Jenkins, and others how to put on a Russian national book festival next fall.
In his greeting to the first ladies, Billington thanked Mrs. Bush for "hosting us all today, and for being the National Book Festival's founding mother, guiding hand, and continuing inspiration."
"We are especially delighted that Mrs. Putin has accepted our first lady's invitation to see this festival first hand," Billington continued. "Mrs. Putin, as a student of philology and strong supporter of the Russian language, is the perfect ambassador of her literary land to this festival."
Luci Tapahonso, a poet and professor of American Indian studies and English at the University of Arizona in Tucson, greeted the White House guests, first in her native Navajo language and then in English. Recounting her lineage in the Navajo way, she said her ancestors "understood the power of words and would appreciate the festival today."
Mary Higgins Clark, the author of 24 best-selling suspense stories, said "an awareness of reading is spreading all through the country," thanks to the book festivals sponsored by Mrs. Bush and the Library.
Clark attributed her love of reading and writing to her mother, who had read to her as a child. Recalling that after her mother put her to bed, she read late into the nights with the aid of a street light shining brightly through her bedroom window, she said, "A child is never lonely with a book under her arm."
Before presenting Mrs. Bush an autographed basketball, which she said she would keep in her office, Washington Wizards star Jerry Stackhouse said members of the National Basketball Association and Women's National Basketball Association had read more than 300,000 books to 300,000 children and established 30 reading centers during the past two years.
"Our message is reading is fun and a necessary life skill," he said.
Thirty minutes later, the two first ladies, hand-in-hand, stepped gingerly over the muddy festival grounds and joined in songs in a storytellers' pavilion and then moved to a children's pavilion to hear Eric Carle, author or illustrator of more than 70 children's books. Mrs. Bush lingered on the grounds after Mrs. Putin left for a reception and luncheon in her honor in the Jefferson Building.
The voices heard by Mrs. Bush and other festival visitors throughout the day told the stories of America's people—their hardships and their ease, their personal struggles, hopes, fears, and triumphs, their mistakes and strokes of genius, their courage and spirit. Some told stories from other times and other lands.
As writers spoke of the power of words to change and empower lives, one had only to watch an audience to witness the magic of language—to transport listeners to other places and other times, to evoke laughter or expressions of compassion or sorrow or joy, to provoke curiosity and questions that could be answered by reading another book, to share the human experience.
Many who performed told their own stories, or revealed the origins of their work. In the storytellers' pavilion, Waddie Mitchell, a working cowboy for 26 years, talked about growing up on a ranch at the end of a dirt road 60 miles from the nearest town. He wore the outfit of his trade—a huge black hat, white shirt, blue jeans, a silver-mounted belt, and boots—and kept his audience laughing with droll cowboy humor.
"We had no TV, so we sat around at night and did the strangest thing—we told stories," he said. Those yarns he heard from the cowhands while he was growing up had been told and retold for generations in the West. He set those stories to rhyme and meter, expanded his writing from "cowboy jargon" to experiences common to all people, and found a new audience. He helped start a new tradition of cowboy poetry festivals that put Elko, Nev., on the map.
In another pavilion, scholar and award-winning science writer Dava Sobel, in a perky red hat with black feathers and black-rimmed glasses perched on her nose, read with passion from some 17th-century letters of Galileo's daughter, Suor Maria Celeste Galilei. She told her story of finding and translating the letters from which she spun her narrative that brought to life the scientist whose heavenly discoveries changed forever the earth's place in the universe.
As the afternoon darkened, hundreds gathered to listen, riveted, to outdoor adventurer Erik Weihenmayer tell his story of going blind as a child and discovering that, although he couldn't play the sports he loved, baseball or basketball, he could climb a mountain. At a New Hampshire climbing camp he attended at age 13, he came up against his first big boulder—and challenge. "I thought that's insane. How do I stick to a rock face? So I did it." His fingers and toes found niches in the rock, and he could pull his body up and up to the top, where he could stand and "feel the space, such huge, vast sounds."
"I knew then, ‘I am not going to play ball, but it doesn't matter because I can climb. My hands and my feet will be my eyes,'" he recalled. Since then, he has continually transcended his physical limitations. Trekking over ice and snow, balancing on rungs tossed over bottomless ice chasms, and scaling vertical cliffs, he has felt his way to the top of Mt. Everest and back, and to the summits of Mt. McKinley in Alaska, Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, Mt. Kilimanjaro on the border of Tanzania and Kenya, and other peaks, with the goal of becoming one of the youngest climbers to ascend all of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.
"My book ["Touch the Top of the World"] is about leadership and courage," he said. He shared some stories about the courage of his disabled friends, a paraplegic who was the first to peddle around the world with his arms, and a disabled team with whom he climbed in Moab, Utah. "I carried a 180-pound paraplegic down a mountain. He had his arms locked around my neck and was shouting, ‘Go right! Go left!' I felt like some kind of computer joy stick, a slightly defective joy stick," he said, laughing with his audience at the image.
"Courage is the greatest word in the English language," he said. "Courage is contagious. We give all those around us courage to do great things." His audience came to their feet, applauding and whooping, as they did again a few minutes later, in appreciation of their festival host, Librarian of Congress James Billington, who shared the limelight with "all those people in the blue shirts who deserve all the credit for putting on this wonderful festival," and for his guest, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David McCullough.
McCullough spoke from the heart, about Billington, "the best Librarian of Congress we ever had," about Laura Bush ("I don't think we ever had as first lady anyone who so loved and furthered the cause of books—at least not since Abigail Adams"), about the Library ("This is the greatest library in the country and in the world. For me this is hallowed ground").
He spoke of the power of books and libraries to change lives. He told a story about a bored young girl, 12, who, with nothing better to do in a small California town, ventured into a place she had never been, a public library. She moved along the shelves, closed her eyes, reached out and picked one volume, and took it to a table. She opened the book, read Thornton Wilder's lyrical description of the Aegean Sea on the first page of "The Cabala and the Woman of Andros," and knew she had to have that book. No local bookstore had it, so she stole it from the library.
"Today, she is the chairman of her department and a distinguished professor of English at one of our fine universities," McCullough said. "I'm not going to tell you who she is, because she still has the book."
After his talk, even though it was dark and he already had signed hundreds of books for an hour and a half, McCullough paused to sign still more. "Please, Mr. McCullough," pleaded a young girl, pushing through a crowd to hand him her paperback edition of "John Adams." "I started this at Christmas, and from the first page, I couldn't put it down until I read it all."
Gail Fineberg is the editor of the Library's staff newspaper, The Gazette.