By GAIL FINEBERG
The face of the Library’s National Book Festival has changed in seven years. When the festival started in 2001, some 30,000 people showed up—mostly white, mostly middle-aged, but with enough young families attending children’s presentations to clog the Library’s Madison Building with strollers.
This year, more than 120,000 festival fans flocked to the National Mall between 7th and 14th streets. Reflecting the diversity of the festival’s 70 authors as well as the capital region’s population, people of all colors came to the festival, as did people of all ages—toddlers to teens, mid-lifers to long-lifers.
“It was the best National Book Festival ever. Everyone loved the festival poster and program, the pavilions were filled to overflowing, the authors’ presentations were funny, insightful and compelling and the weather was perfect,” said festival manager Roberta Stevens.
“It took a huge number of talented staff members and enthusiastic volunteers to make the festival experience a success, and I am deeply grateful to each and every person who was a part of the dedicated 900-person festival team,” she said.
Who could resist the outdoor call of an Indian-summer day on the Mall? Saturday, Sept. 29, dawned cool enough for a sweater and became warm enough for bare arms. A bright blue sky framed the white Capitol dome on the Hill above the glistening white peaks of huge pavilion tents, which transformed the Mall into a storybook scene, an enchanting land of story tellers.
Book lovers came early, undeterred by a morning triathlon that closed Independence and Constitution avenues west of 7th Street. Throughout the morning they snatched up 30,000 bright yellow Book TV bags donated by C-SPAN2. Collectively, they filled them with as many books as they could afford to buy and 40,000 programs, 22,000 free festival posters, 30,000 free bottles of water, 25,000 Target bags and free handouts from the Library of Congress Pavilion and the Pavilion of the States. “I’m a professional scavenger,” one full-bag-toter explained.
Readers came by Metro, by foot from distant parking spots, by the busload from outlying areas. The youngest came in strollers. The oldest came with the aid of canes and wheelchairs. One frail older woman arrived in the History and Biography Pavilion with her own purple folding chair and a contingent of chair and cooler managers.
People came from nearby neighborhoods and towns. A Children’s Hospital Teen Life Club sponsored by the Junior League of Washington came from the District, a busload of students drove in from Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., and 22 kids and four teachers came from Suitland, Md.
“Today, I think we are creating book lovers. Today, the children are making connections with the authors,” said Ellis Hicks, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Drew Freeman Middle School in Suitland. Her students read every day in class, but on this day, a story came to life as one author, Shelia P. Moses, introduced and told stories about her twin brother Leon and his fictional twin Luke, who with other family members populated her most recent book for young people, “The Baptism.”
Hicks had purchased three new books for the school library, and one of her pupils, Johnny Latimer, had presented “The Baptism” to Moses, who took time after her talk to write this inscription: “Many Blessings to Ms. Ellis Hicks.”
Speaking in the rhythmic, mellow voice of her Occoneechee Neck, N.C., roots (she has traced five generations to this region), Moses appealed directly to the hearts and minds of every parent, grandparent, aunt and uncle gathered in the Teens and Children Pavilion to hear her. “The books we read today will serve us well tomorrow,” she said.
“There is help for our children—if you stop letting TV raise them, and give them a book instead.”
People came from far away. A Pavilion of the States delegation from Hawaii brought a book about the islands’ history especially for the festival host and hostess, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and First Lady Laura Bush.
Cynthia Dunn and her friend Logan Ragsdale made a special trip from New York City just to attend the festival. Reading inscriptions on a large white panel, Dunn stood a long time in the Library’s pavilion before the graffiti wall titled “Which Author and Book Inspires You the Most?” Finally she printed neatly, “Marcel Proust.” “We’re reading him together,” she said. “We’re on the third volume.”
Laughing, Ragsdale pointed out his favorite inscription on the graffiti panel labeled “What Would You Preserve at the Library of Congress?” Someone had written at the top of the panel in perfect Rice penmanship, “The Reference Librarians.” Ragsdale is a librarian at the Queensboro Public Library.
A family of four from Fresno was vacationing in Washington and happened upon the book festival by accident. All readers, they were delighted. “It was the most spectacular thing we’ve ever seen,” they told former Library staff member Gayle Harris the next day at Mount Vernon, where dozens of tourists were walking around with their yellow book bags from the festival.
A group of six from New Hampshire stood with a “Troops Out Now” sign in a vegetarian lunch line. Although they are readers, New Hampshire Peace Action members Cathy Brentwood and Gary Walker said they had come from a nearby antiwar demonstration to the festival grounds, not for the event or to make a statement but “for the free water and some food.”
United by a shared love of reading and books, readers jostled one another politely to grab seats in crowded pavilions to hear their favorite authors of fiction, fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, histories, biographies and books for children of all ages, as well as celebrity chefs and other television personalities. From pavilion to pavilion, laughter rang out as authors turned comedians, telling stories on themselves. Patricia MacLachlan, for example, described her private writing life, in pajamas and surrounded by pets that figure in her books for children and teens. “I write like this, up and down, up and down. I play a lot of solitaire on my computer, between chapters.”
In Let’s Read America pavilions, people lined up for pictures with their favorite PBS characters and Bullseye, the real Target pooch, a study in patience as she focused on the flashing Polaroid camera and endured hundreds of petting hands. They waited in short lines to sign three huge graffiti walls, in long lines to buy food and pay for books and in even longer lines to meet the authors and get their books signed. (Terry Pratchett obliged fans for two hours, and festival poster artist Mercer Mayer signed posters and his illustrated children’s books for two-and-a-half hours.)
Helping all these people find programs, specific authors and pavilions, seats, food, water and other necessities were 900 volunteers, whose chrysanthemum-yellow festival T-shirts and welcoming smiles added light and color to the scene.
This largest-ever fleet of helpers included 400 members of the Junior League of Washington, which supports literacy programs in the Washington area; some 325 Library staffers, including security teams, author escorts and festival managers and publicists; and 175 others drawn to the festival over the years from a large community of readers. “I love to volunteer for this festival. It’s so organized,” explained one nonaffiliated volunteer.
The National Book Festival opened at 9:55 a.m. on a thoughtful, philosophical note with remarks by the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, who invoked the reverence of the nation’s founders for books and knowledge. He spoke, appropriately, in the History and Biography Pavilion—the one pavilion devoted solely to instructional nonfiction, the one pavilion that, over the years, has drawn the largest crowds, consistently, all day long.
“The goal of the National Book Festival,” he said, “is not only to encourage Americans to read often and widely, but also to make reading a lifelong practice.”
To emphasize the importance of reading to become informed citizens with responsibility for their government, he quoted President James Madison in his second annual message to Congress (Dec. 5, 1810): “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”
He also quoted Thomas Jefferson, who said in an 1821 letter to Madison: “A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital. …” He noted Jefferson’s patronage of the Library of Congress, which for 207 years has preserved the nation’s book-capital investment and nurtured and protected it with copyright.
Billington then introduced Marie Arana, editor of Book World, the book review section of The Washington Post, which she noted is a “proud charter sponsor” of the National Book Festival. “Thanks to Dr. Billington and Mrs. Billington for all they have done for books,” she said.
For the next seven hours, prize-winning biographers and historians told the stories behind the stories, beginning with ABC News correspondent Jan Crawford Greenburg’s inside story of the struggle for control over the Supreme Court and ending with Ken Burns’s and Geoffrey Ward’s behind-the-lens story of shooting the film “The War” and writing the book “The War, An Intimate History, 1941-1945.”
At the end of the Burns-Ward presentation, various members of the audience asked Burns why he hadn’t included more battles and more veterans’ experiences in his film.
“I am pretty thrilled that, after a 450-page book and a 15-hour documentary, your biggest concern is what is left out,” he responded, laughing.
“Why not this? Why not that? Why not everything?” Billington remarked in his typical, expansive approach to Library events.
Addressing his parting words to the 5 o’clock crowd that included some 300 standing at the open edges of the History and Biography Pavilion, he said: “I hope this festival sparked your imagination and love of reading.”
The responding applause indicated that was the case.
Gail Fineberg is editor of the Library’s staff newsletter, The Gazette. For more information about this and past book festivals, see www.loc.gov/bookfest/.