By GAIL FINEBERG
Rivers of readers flowed onto the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Oct. 9, pooling in white, peaked, pavilions where more than 70 authors and illustrators spoke about books, ideas and the connections that readers make through words or, in the case of early readers, pictures.
"The next time I hear that Americans don't read, I'm going to remember this beautiful picture of all these readers," novelist-columnist-essayist Anna Quindlen told her National Book Festival audience. "If you love books, it doesn't get any better than this," she said. People packing the Home and Family Pavilion cheered and applauded.
In its fourth year, the National Book Festival, sponsored and organized by the Library of Congress and hosted by first lady Laura Bush, drew the largest crowd yet, an estimated 85,000, many of them carrying the bright orange book bags given away by C-SPAN2's Book TV.
"I couldn't be more pleased," said Library of Congress Chief of Staff Jo Ann Jenkins, surveying the festive scene - huge white tents spread over seven blocks between the Capitol to the east and the National Monument to the west, with bright orange festival banners adorning pavilions and walkways. Parents pushing strollers ambled along in the warm autumn sunshine. Young readers, many carrying book bags, towed parents and grandparents toward the Children's Pavilion. Teens and lifelong learners listened raptly to their favorite authors, and readers of all ages lined up patiently to buy books and have them signed. Crowds filled nearly every pavilion seat and stood along the edges - not passive listeners but engaged choruses that laughed in unison and clapped in response to the speakers' remarks.
Jenkins noted the popularity of a new festival attraction, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Pavilion, featuring old and new masters of the genre, ranging from futurist Frederik Pohl to satirist Neil Gaiman and including Ben Bova, Neal Stephenson, Catherine Asaro, Lois McMaster Bujold, Patricia Wrede and Connie Willis.
"This is a good addition. A lot of people are pleased," one sci-fi fan said, waiting in a long Pohl book-signing line. Readers up and down the line nodded in concurrence.
Hugely popular was the Pavilion of the States. Although it was twice the size it was last year, this pavilion was crammed full of children pulling their parents from table to table to collect state stamps on U.S. literary maps. "Who is your favorite author?" a bookworm at the Oklahoma State table asked two little girls from Upper Marlboro County. "R. L. Stine," replied Antesha, 11. "Barbara Parker. She writes the Junie B books," said her sister, Julia, 9.
Janet Meury, manager of the Powell branch of the Park County Library in Wyoming, 72 miles east of Yellowstone National Park, tucked a stray strand of gray hair into the knot atop her head and stamped a U.S. literary map thrust before her by a small boy. "This is wonderful. This is really exciting," said Meury, who added she could have spent the entire previous night "reading all the walls and ceilings" in the Great Hall of the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building, where she had attended an authors' reception.
Cindy Watson, a high school guidance counselor and former English teacher from Manassas, Va., plunked down on a bench with a bottle of water and her orange book bag stuffed with purchases. Happy but weary, she had captured the autographs of two favorite authors, heard two others speak, and was resting a moment before going to hear Joyce Carol Oates and stand in another book-signing line.
"I'm thoroughly impressed," she said. "This is so well organized. Even though there are a lot of people buying books and waiting for authors to sign them, the lines are moving efficiently."
Writers as Celebrities
Adoring fans conferred celebrity status on their favorite authors. At 8:30 a.m., 90 minutes before the festival opened, some 300 readers were already in line waiting for Neil Gaiman to sign their books, such as "American Gods" (Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, SFX and Locus awards), a medley of myth, mystery, satire, sex and horror presented in poetic prose (according to The Washington Post Book World).
Readers who have followed Dirk Pitt's adventures through 17 books and dived deep with Kurt Austin into underwater worlds of suspense mobbed their creator Clive Cussler for autographs after his talk.
They gave Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) a standing ovation as he discussed his book, "Walking with the Wind," his 1999 memoir of the civil rights struggle, and listened reverentially to Dorothy Height, a civil rights leader for more than 60 years, who discussed the subject of her 2003 memoir, "Open Wide the Freedom Gates."
They giggled with Sandra Brown, who told them she'd much rather that the pages of her 65 romances and "romantic suspense" novels were turned down, splotched with sun tan oil, "read on the beach, in the subway, in the tub," than "literature sitting unread on a shelf."
"I write to entertain," she said, "and for the paycheck." Authors of children's books, among them Kate DiCamillo, R.L. Stine, Floyd Cooper and E.L. Konigsburg, had large, boisterous followings who squeezed into pavilions for children and teens and queued up to have their books signed.
Captivated by her passion for the freedom to read any book of one's choosing, hundreds waited for vivacious, brainy Iranian professor Azar Nafisi to sign their copies of "Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir." At the end of the day, they clustered in the History and Biography Pavilion to hear Nafisi defend the right to read.
"Totalitarian regimes are scared of a multiplicity of voices. They always want only one voice," said Nafisi, who was prohibited from teaching Western works of literature and, in 1997, expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil.
Nafisi's memoir is about teaching Western classics to seven women students who met secretly in her Tehran living room. (One of them, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, was in the audience.) By reading banned books, she said, she and her students "were enemies of the state."
"The question before us today is what about millions of readers who want the freedom and ability to imagine ... the kind of life they want to live, to read the books they want to read, to discuss them freely," Nafisi said.
Speaking with affection and anguish of "my beloved Tehran," she appealed to her American audience to expand its reading lists to include Persian writers such as the poets Rumi and Hafiz.
"Cultures communicate through imagination and thought where there are no boundaries," she said.
Literature, like love, illuminates the soul, Nafisi said, and "celebrates not only our differences, but how much we are alike."
Celebrities as Writers
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came to the festival, not as the celebrity basketball player he once was but as a promoter of literacy and his own book, "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes" (2004). Nonetheless, children and their parents stood four deep around the Children's Pavilion to hear him speak, and they crowded around him to collect his autograph.
The Home & Family Pavilion featured celebrity chefs, home renovators and designers, and columnists, all of whom have written one or more recent books.
Nationally renowned newspaper columnist and self-described "household hintologist," Heloise, not only discussed her new book, "Get Organized with Heloise," but also broadcast her weekly radio program, "Ask Heloise," live from the National Book Festival.
Heloise, the daughter of the original author of the "Hints from Heloise" column, was born with a visual impairment that made reading difficult and painful. Only later in life, after a series of corrective surgeries, did her love of reading and writing blossom.
During her two-hour radio program, she interviewed an eclectic mix of authors and book personalities, including Alexandra Stoddard, Robert Parker, Neil Gaiman, R.L. Stine, Patricia MacLachlan and Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, asking each for their own special lifestyle tip for the Heloise audience.
Librarian of Congress James Billing-ton offered her radio audience a useful household hint: "Your grandmother's attic is the worst place to store family memorabilia," he said. "It's usually too hot and humid. Choose a cool, dry place for your family books and photos. Better still, scan and digitize the photos for viewing and keep the originals for posterity."
Two members of the staff of the PBS home renovation series "This Old House" discussed the program's 25-year history. Host Kevin O'Connor and general contractor Tom Silva (contributors to This Old House books and magazine) entertained the audience with classic and more recent stories from the program, which has documented the renovation of one to three private homes each season.
Silva described his long association with the program and public television in general; Silva Brothers Construction built the original set of the WGBH production, "Crockett's Victory Garden," in the 1970s. Russell Morash, creator of the program, had also started a home renovation program and liked Silva's work. After some initial skepticism, Silva signed on, and he has served as general contractor on "This Old House" for 18 of its 25 years.
O'Connor, who joined the program last year as host, announced that in celebration of its 25th anniversary, "This Old House" purchased an 1849 Greek Revival farmhouse in a pastoral suburb of Boston. After the team renovates the house, proceeds of its sale will go to fund scholarships for students to go into the building trades.
At the end of the day, the Library's own celebrity and author, Jim Billington, thanked all the Library staff who had worked so hard during the past year to make the event possible, in particular Chief of Staff Jenkins, festival manager Roberta Stevens, fund-raiser Sue Siegel, author coordinator John Cole, volunteer coordinator Kathy Woodrell, graphics designer Rob Sokol and media coordinators Jim and Sheryl Cannady. He also expressed appreciation to the nearly 700 volunteers, including 370 members of the Junior League of Washington.
As the pavilions fell silent, the crowds ebbed toward home - or their favorite bookstores - eager to return to solitary celebration of words: reading.
Gail Fineberg is the editor of the Library's staff newsletter, The Gazette. Public Affairs Specialist John Sayers contributed to this report.