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National Book Festival: Democracy in the 21st Century

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The limits of democracy have been tested both domestically and world-wide during the past two decades, a series of crucibles that will inform the Library’s third major focus of the 2020 National Book Festival, “Democracy in the 21st Century.”

From the changing nature of the American political arena to the “Arab Spring” to Russia under Vladimir Putin – to name a few – the landscape of democracy has proven to be uncertain terrain.

This thread will feature 21 authors in 13 programs, ranging from books for kids and books for readers of current politics and books for history fans who want to examine how we got where we are. The Sept. 25-27 festival is online due to COVID-19, but one of the benefits is that you can range from a variety of programs all without moving from in front of your screen. (This replaces the jostling hustle from stage to stage that you’ll fondly remember from the in-person festivals at the D.C. Convention Center.)

As always, there are big names in history – Eric Foner, Heather Cox Richardson, Jared Diamond and David Rubenstein – and in journalism – Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Barton Gellman and George Packer. There’s also a delightful set of authors writing for child and teen audiences, including Sophie Blackall, Don Tate and Veronica Chambers. You can talk with authors via interactive chats, but don’t worry if you miss any — the Q&A sessions will be available at the close of the festival, too.

“Are we, worldwide, drifting away from a spoken allegiance to democracy?” says Marie Arana, the Library’s literary director. “Why are governments becoming more authoritarian, and why do citizens sometimes like that they’re becoming more authoritarian? These authors are really getting down to the nitty-gritty of what it takes to uphold a democracy.”

Foner, perhaps the nation’s preeminent historian of Reconstruction, will be here to discuss his latest, “The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.” Foner has won the Pulitzer, Bancroft and Lincoln prizes, among others, and the professor emeritus of history at Columbia University shows no signs of slowing down, showing us how the nation’s failure to solve the problems of slavery in the 19th century have dogged the country ever since.

Also on that topic will be Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson. She argues the nation’s westward expansion after the Civil War continued the themes of white male domination over Blacks, Native Americans and Mexican Americans, as personified by the Western cowboy. Her book, “How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America” traces how the defeated South imbued the West with its brutal antebellum racial hierarchies. And in particular, she argues, democracy has always depended on inequalities – one of the central paradoxes of American life.

Two modern-era diplomats, Richard Holbrooke and James Baker III, are up for discussion, too. Holbrooke is the subject of Packer’s “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.” Baker is the focus of “The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James Baker III,” by the husband-and-wife team of Peter Baker (of the New York Times) and Susan B. Glasser (of The New Yorker).

For kids, Tate will be talking about the Underground Railroad and the often-overlooked role of William Still, a Philadelphia clerk who helped as many as 800 enslaved people to freedom. Chambers, author of the memoir “Mama’s Girl,” is here with “Finish the Fight! The Brave and Revolutionary Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote,” a book for readers in grades 3 through 7 about the women of color who are often overlooked as suffrage leaders. She co-wrote it with a number of her colleagues on the staff of the New York Times. Blackall, an author-illustrator and two-time winner of the Caldecott Medal, has a gorgeous picture-book, “If You Come to Earth.” It’s designed for readers between the ages of 5 and 8.

You can pre-register for the National Book Festival here. The full Virtual Festival Platform will open beginning at 9 a.m. ET on Friday, Sept. 25.

Finally, as a reminder, PBS stations will broadcast “The Library of Congress National Book Festival: Celebrating American Ingenuity,” a two-hour program featuring some of the biggest names at the festival, launching on Sunday, Sept. 27, 6-8 p.m. ET/PT (check local listings) and continuing through the fall. It will be hosted by Hoda Kotb of NBC News’ “TODAY” show and the daughter of a long-time Library employee. The program will also be available for on-demand streaming online and through the PBS app.

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