(The following article, written by Mark Hartsell, was featured in the Library of Congress staff newsletter, The Gazette.)
“I cannot live without books,” Thomas Jefferson famously once said. The 15th National Book Festival last week provided evidence that plenty of others can’t, either.
Thousands of book lovers descended on the Washington Convention Center on Saturday to see a record 170-plus authors and illustrators, pay tribute to America’s fighting men and women, explore the Jefferson legacy, meet a new poet laureate and indulge their literary passions via the first-ever festival session devoted to romance fiction.
Library Chief of Staff Robert R. Newlen opened the 12-hour literary love fest at 10 a.m. with the presentation of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction to Louise Erdrich, author of critically acclaimed novels such as “Love Medicine” and “Plague of Doves.”
“She is, above all, an American original, a writer whose work rings with authenticity,” Newlen said.
Erdrich joins a line of literary heavyweights who’ve received a Library prize for fiction: Isabel Allende, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and E.L. Doctorow, among others.
“I have to say, I am very surprised and moved that you came to this event because there is so much going on here,” Erdrich told a full house in the Fiction pavilion. “Thank you.”
Across the convention center, the Library’s Letters About Literature program gave one young reader face time with a favorite author.
The national reading and writing program asks students around the country to write to an author about how his or her book affected their lives. At the festival, Gabriel Ferris read his award-winning letter to Walter Isaacson, author of the best-selling “Steve Jobs,” as Isaacson listened.
“I didn’t really understand how some- one could be too determined, too driven and too rigid,” said Ferris, reading from his letter. “It was not until many chapters later that I started to realize that the same factors that played into [Jobs’] extreme success were the very factors that contributed to his personal human failure in almost all relationships. …
“Is excess a requirement for extreme success? Your story leaves me wondering if this is the case.”
Isaacson put his arm around Ferris and offered appreciation for the analysis.
“Thank you for writing the most insightful review not only of my book but of Steve Jobs’ life,” Isaacson said.
Books, Fun and Games
On the lower level of the convention center, visitors purchased books, queued up in book-signing lines that stretched across the massive exhibit-hall spaces, got a bite to eat, attended presentations at the Library of Congress Pavilion, competed at games in a virtual maze, posed their children for photos in astronaut uniforms, played impromptu volleyball with balloons and just enjoyed the company of thousands of like-minded folks.
“I am among my people #natbook- fest15,” one festivalgoer tweeted.
Among the many special programs at this year’s festival, the Library offered a five-part series exploring the impact of war on the men and women who fight.
“The Human Side of War” opened with an interview, conducted by festival co-chairman David M. Rubenstein, of journalist and “The Greatest Generation” author Tom Brokaw.
Brokaw described his experiences growing up under the World War II generation and, as a journalist six decades later, covering the men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He recalled meeting a husband and wife serving together in the National Guard in Iraq, while the grandparents cared for their children back home in the States.
This country probably won’t have a draft again, Brokaw said, but he wondered about the effect on society of such a lack of shared sacrifice.
“We have less than 1 percent of our population in uniform,” Brokaw said. “We’re asking them to take all the risks, to come home missing limbs, to be psychologically damaged, to come home in body bags. … It seems to me that’s immoral for a democratic society.”
A Laureate Launches
The festival also offered a poetry premiere: The public debut of Juan Felipe Herrera as U.S. poet laureate. Herrera appeared in the Children’s pavilion to discuss his recent book, “Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes,” served as a judge at the evening poetry-slam competition and announced the official project of his laureateship.
That project is La Casa de Colores, an invitation to Americans to contribute verse to an “epic poem” about the American experience. The poem, “La Familia,” will unfold monthly, with a new theme each month about an aspect of American life, values or culture.
“La Casa de Colores will be the voices of everybody,” Herrera said at an after- noon press conference. “Our voices are going to dance and sing.”
That evening in the Biography pavilion, history buffs filled the floor and balcony of a cavernous ballroom to hear Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough discuss his most recent book, “The Wright Brothers.”
“The older I get, the more I think about our story as a country,” McCullough said. “History isn’t just about politics and war. It’s about art and music and finance and medicine and invention. It’s about everything. It’s about the human mind, human achievement, human aspirations.”
McCullough assessed the brothers’ individual talents (“Wilbur was a genius; Orville was very clever and innovative”), passed on Wilbur’s secret to success (“pick out a good mother and father and grow up in Ohio”) and the brothers’ sense of their achievement (“they knew what they had done could change the world”), and offered advice to a history teacher in the audience.
Why, the teacher asked McCullough, should we study history?
“History is human,” he said. “It’s not boring, it’s not statistics, it’s not dates you have to memorize. It’s about human beings. ‘When in the course of human events’ our great document begins – and the operative word there is ‘human.’ “
As his session neared the close, McCullough stopped and turned to his interviewer with another thought: “Oh, I wish this could be longer.”
The thousands of visitors at the 15th National Book Festival surely would agree.
Folks couldn’t seem to get enough of the new book festival app introduced this year. We received positive feedback about how it helped people plan their day and schedule which of the author presentations to attend.
The festival presentations were taped and the videos will start to become available on the National Book Festival website in the next month or so. (There will be a blog post to let you know when.) In the meantime, if you couldn’t make the festival or would like to join me in reflecting, today’s post contains a collection of photos from Saturday’s festivities. Enjoy!