By JENNIFER GAVIN
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington made an announcement on May 6 sure to thrill hundreds of thousands of people who have loved the National Book Festival during its storied run, “a decade of words and wonder.”
He announced that David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and managing director of the private equity firm The Carlyle Group, is donating $5 million to provide major support to the National Book Festival (which will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year on Saturday, Sept. 25) for the next five years.
“The ability to learn how to read and love reading got me where I am today,” said Rubenstein, who reads six to eight books a week.
“The festival brings young and old alike face-to-face with authors in a one-day event that lives on long after the last reading,” Rubenstein told a delighted crowd at the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, steps away from Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection of books that re-established the Library of Congress after the British torched the Capitol in 1814. “With this gift, the festival will be secure in its funding for years to come.”
Rubenstein is a member of the Library’s James Madison Council, a private-sector advisory group, and in recent years has been generous with both his time and with funding for cultural and educational institutions in several states. He’s also the incoming chair of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
But before all that, he was a kid whose dad would send him to Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, where he’d check out the maximum number of books allowed each week—12—and devour them.
Thomas Jefferson said he could not live without books, and “I am never more happy than when I am alone with my books … it’s one of the joys of my life,” Rubenstein said. But more than that, he said, reading is the foundation of success in life.
He’s alarmed at what he termed both illiteracy and aliteracy in the United States today. Not only is the rate of U.S. illiteracy too high, he said, there are too many people who can read, but don’t.
“Eighty percent of families in the United States didn’t buy a book last year,” he said. “Seventy percent have not visited a bookstore in the past five years. Forty-two percent of college graduates never read a book after they graduate from college.”
The Library’s programs to interest people of all ages in reading and literacy, from its website Read.gov and its Center for the Book to the National Book Festival, can help turn that around, Rubenstein said.
The Rubenstein donation, which will be overseen by a board including Rubenstein and the Librarian of Congress, “is really a down payment on helping to endow the National Book Festival,” Rubenstein said.
He also called the gift a thank-you to Billington, for his outstanding career ensuring that the Library of Congress has blazed a trail in the digital world and serves as the world’s greatest national library.
“If Thomas Jefferson were here today, he’d say, ‘Dr. Billington, you’ve done a great job’ shepherding his library,” Rubenstein said.
Also celebrating the gift on Thursday were bestselling author David Baldacci and several families who have enjoyed the National Book Festival for years.
The National Book Festival is “a symbol for everyone that a nation founded on words still respects the written word,” said Baldacci, who has been a guest author at several of the festivals. For an author, the experience is “the closest thing to a rock-star (experience) we will ever get!”
Baldacci—who has brought his own family to the book festival to savor its offerings for readers of all ages—introduced five families who shared their book-festival experiences at the news conference. Baldacci noted that his own son, now in high school, was mostly interested when he first attended at age 5 in the PBS character Clifford the Big Red Dog.
But Clifford turned out to be “very big, and very red … my son ran off screaming,” Baldacci admitted.
Britteny Wilson, a college student who attended the news conference with her mother Tina Wilson, said she attended her first National Book Festival in 2008, with a school assignment to find a book about a U.S. president. “It was fun,” she said.
Reese Bobo, a fourth-grader, said last year he met zany kids’ author Jon Scieszka (the Library’s first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature) “and that was really cool.” Reese said he reads a lot. Baldacci asked him to delineate his taste in literature.
“I like books that throw around a joke every now and then,” Reese said, “but not too much.”
Jennifer Gavin is the senior public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.