Reading is often a solitary pursuit, yet books can bring us together —many thousands of us, in fact, if Saturday’s joyous National Book Festival is any measure.
“It’s wonderful to be back at the Washington Convention Center in person and to see all of these smiling faces,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said to cheers as she opened the festival on the main stage.
It was the Library’s first in-person festival since the pandemic forced writers and readers into their separate spaces. The crowds, the energy and the buzz mirrored the festival’s theme — literally, that books bring us together.
As festivalgoers entered the convention center, purple-T-shirted volunteers greeted them with a friendly “Welcome back!” (For the past two years, the festival had been online, as much of D.C. was shut down due to the pandemic.) At a central information booth, they picked up printed programs, posters and C-SPAN book bags, a perennial favorite bit of swag.
From Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Maraniss, music sensation Janelle Monáe, Instagram star Leslie Jordan and disability advocate Nyle DiMarco to civil rights legend Ruby Bridges, Hayden promised something for just about everyone. “It’s gonna be a fantastic day!”
Following Hayden, actor turned bestselling author Nick Offerman delighted fans in a conversation with National Park Service ranger Millie Jimenez about his latest book, “Where the Deer and Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside.”
Offerman was one of more than 100 authors who appeared on 11 festival stages. They hailed from 25 states and the District of Columbia; they ranged from Pulitzer Prize winners to debut writers (17 of them); and, over the past year, they wrote fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children’s literature reflecting the “diversity of readers across our nation,” as Hayden put it.
Some tackled tough subjects (racism, climate change) and explored solutions; others wrote about ways to find joy amid the challenges of modern life. And yet others explored worlds filled with unforgettable characters and dramatic revelations.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Will Bunch addressed debates about higher education, a subject so surrounded by “bad vibes,” he said, that it has become a fault line in American politics.
Some families fret their kids won’t get ahead if they don’t get into the “right” university, while others who can’t afford college or don’t go — nearly half the population, Bunch said — fear that “people think that they’re less worthy, that they lack merit.”
Indeed, fear is the “prevailing attitude around higher education nowadays” Bunch told the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri in a conversation about his new book, “After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics — and How to Fix It.”
The solution, in Bunch’s view, involves a return to a post-World War II mindset, when the GI Bill made higher education a public good, and support of young people outside traditional universities. “We need to have free trade schools, we need to have internships,” Bunch said.
Many other writers appeared in pairs, trios or even, in the case of “Blackout” on the Main Stage (a celebration of Black teen love), a quintet.
Sessions this year had titles alerting festivalgoers to the subject matter of presentations in case they weren’t familiar with the writers speaking.
Titles included “Heal Thyself?: Mental Illness and Me,” in which Rachel Aviv and Daniel Bergner cited their own experiences (and their respective books) in discussing the limits of modern treatments for mental crises, and “Is Anything Funnier Than Politics?,” in which Susan Coll, Grant Ginder and Xochitl Gonzalez explored the role of secrets in intricate family politics and the way comedy offers an avenue for emotional release in the face of pain.
In “We Knew Them Before They Were Famous,” Louis Bayard and Karen Joy Fowler paired up to talk about their new historical novels — Bayard’s focusing on one of the most beloved figures in American history (Jacqueline Kennedy), and Fowler’s imagining the family of one of the most reviled (John Wilkes Booth).
Bayard’s “Jackie & Me” depicts the relationship that grew between Jackie and Lem Billings, John F. Kennedy’s best friend and a closeted gay man, in the run-up to the Kennedys’ marriage.
Often, queer people have been left out of history, Bayard said. But now, stories such as his are being told about “people who have always been there, just hiding in the corners of their public lives.”
Fowler joked that her Booker Prize-nominated novel, “Booth,” with its exploration of the Lincoln assassin’s eccentric family, shows that “people who don’t murder presidents can be just as interesting as people who do.”
Performances of literary works, new to the festival this year, brought characters from across centuries and worlds to life on two stages.
On the Pop Lit stage, three actors performed a scene from “The Conjure-Man Dies,” set in an undertaker’s office in Harlem just after a murder. Written by Rudolph Fisher and first published in 1932, “Conjure-Man” was the first full-length mystery novel to feature an all-Black cast of characters, and the Library republished it this spring as part of its Crime Classics series.
In “My Book Is Talking to Me,” three award-winning audiobook narrators from the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled shared secrets of their craft and performed passages from “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen; “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum; and “Passing” by Nella Larsen.
And, surrounded by comfy couches and colorful beanbags on the Please Read Me a Story stage, actors from the group Literature to Life acted out excerpts from “Black Boy” by Richard Wright; “If Beale Street Could Talk” by James Baldwin; and “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz.
Elsewhere, children and families took selfies in front of a Dav Pilkey “Dog Man and Cat Kid” blowup; selected free books at Scholastic’s booth; lined up to spin a colorful wheel for prizes at the Washington Post’s; built electrical circuits at General Motors; and gathered souvenirs from states around the country in the lively Roadmap to Reading area.
Many also learned about the Library. Antonio Parker of the Internship and Fellowship Programs Section said his booth was busy nonstop. Mark Layman of NLS said crowds of kids patiently absorbed themselves in braille coloring by numbers. And Tammy Wong of the Geography and Map Division said a colorful replica map visualizing the texture of the mid-Atlantic ocean floor fascinated dozens of children.
As always, books sales (from Politics and Prose) and signings (managed by the Junior League of Washington) attracted thousands to the expo floor. While waiting in signing lines, festivalgoers could be seen sitting on the floor reading their just-purchased books.
Sahar Kazmi contributed to this story.
The 2022 National Book Festival was made possible by the generous support of private- and public-sector sponsors who share the Library’s commitment to reading and literacy, led by National Book Festival Co-Chair David M. Rubenstein. Sponsors include: Institute of Museum and Library Services, The Washington Post, AARP, General Motors, James Madison Council, John W. Kluge Center, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Scholastic and Sharjah Book Authority. Presenting Partner C-SPAN and Media Partners NPR and El Tiempo Latino.