DC at Night

DC at Night

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Day for the Books

Standing on the platform at the Crystal City Metro station, waiting for the Blue line train to the National Mall, I thought yet again about what would be my 1st day ever at the annual National Book Festival sponsored by the Library of Congress. Two days. 20 tents. 125 authors. Thousands and thousands of book lovers. Having recently attended the Bonaroo Music Festival in Tennessee with my son and the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans with my wife, I knew 2 things. I would need a plan and I was sure I would deviate from that plan. I had made a tentative schedule. I had studied the map and knew the locations where I wanted to be. I had the information I needed on my iPhone. I was ready.

On the train, I figured the woman sitting across from me was heading to the same place I was. The giveaway was the bag she was carrying. Inside the bag were 10 neatly arranged books she planned to have authors sign. I learned she was a middle-school librarian from Atlanta. Five of the books were hers; 5 were those of her 17-year-old son, who had just posted on his Facebook page: "My mom is headed to the National Book Festival and she didn't take me. Boo"

When the train arrived at the Smithsonian stop at the National Mall, all 6 of the cars emptied rapidly. Seeing that the line of festival-goers wanting to use the escalator for the main exit stretched along the entire platform, I opted for the alternate Constitution Avenue exit.

I arrived at the site about 5 minutes before the 10 a.m. event was to start. I headed directly to the Contemporary Life tent and found one of the last available seats. For the next 45 minutes I listened to Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandlebaum discuss their most recent book That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. (A Prices Do DC teaser: I will be writing separate blog posts on all the authors I mention here in the coming days).

I checked the program book I had picked up when I entered. We were only 45 minutes into the day and I was already making my 1st change. Despite weeks of careful scrutiny, somehow I missed that Mike Lupica, my favorite sports reporter and the best-selling author of sports tales for young adult readers, was next up at the Teens and Children Tent. So it was goodbye Paul Hendrickson and Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost and hello Lupica..

On my way to the tent, I dodged hundreds of enthusiastic young readers dashing to the author signing area to meet their favorite authors and get them to sign the books or the festival posters they were clutching in their hands. For his part, Lupica delighted the mostly young male crowd with the story of how he came to write his stories involving young heroes and heroines who encounter big challenges they must overcome, not so much to win, but to become better people.

Now while I love books, I also love to eat. Initially, I had feared that I would have to fore-go food from 10 to 6 p.m. (And, to any of my smart-mouthed friends, while it might be extremely challenging, I could do that if I absolutely had to). But thankfully, the food gods interceded on my behalf. As I had previously seen all 4 writers I was interested in at the 11:45 time slot, I could take an hour for lunch. My wife Judy likes books, but she hates the sun. Therefore, she had planned an alternate Saturday of activities. She was going to the American Indian Museum to see a new totem pole installation and a performance by a group of Whirling Dervish dancers from Turkey, part of a day-long celebration of Searching for the Divine through the Arts. She was then going to the Newseum to hear a talk by President Obama's White House videographer. Finally, she would return and try to fill the Book Festival 2012 big bag that C-Span 2 was giving away with free stuff for our grandchildren before joining me for the day's final book talk. We agreed to meet at the Mitsiam Cafe at the American Indian Museum for a quick lunch. (For the sake of full disclosure, I had the Plate of Color,  consisting of 4 side dishes from the South American section of the cafe selected personally by Chef Ken. I have no idea what I ate, but it was really good).

On my way back to the Festival, I struggled with the only author dilemma I had been unable to resolve. I wanted to see Jewel, the songstress who also writes books for young children, and poet Philip Levine, who had just completed a year as the Poet Laureate of the United States.  Again, fate decided for me. I couldn't get anywhere near the packed Jewel tent, but I was able to find a tiny space in the back of the Levine tent where I could see and hear. There, I heard Levine read from his common-man poems, a reading on the level of a solo Bruce Springsteen concert without the music. At the end of 45 fascinating, moving minutes, I had found a new favorite contemporary American poet.

Next up was the event I was most looking forward to - 45 minutes in the Fiction and Mystery tent with best-selling police/crime fiction writer Michael Connelly, the creator of both Harry Bosch and the Lincoln Lawyer. To the delight of his cheering crowd of fans (every seat was taken and I joined a large group of people who sat on the grass at the side of the stage) Connelly went into great detail about his forthcoming book, The Black Box, where the upstanding Detective Bosch will continue his struggle through the darkened tunnel of his life toward a light he eventually hopes to find.

After Connelly, I headed to the Contemporary Life tent to check out veteran Supreme Court analyst Jeffrey Toobin, whose recently released book is entitled The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court. In a talk featuring equal measure of revealing detail and humor, Toobin spent his 45 minutes explaining the complex inner workings of the court to the highly political crowd there to hear his views.

From there I headed back to the Fiction and Mystery tent to hear Sandra Cisneros, whose modern classic The House on Mango Street I had taught many times during my teaching career. There were no available chairs, so I again grabbed a grassy spot near the stage and prepared to be entertained and enlightened. Cisneros, who had just completed a book tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of Mango Street, read dramatically from a new book coming out in a few weeks Where Is Marie? While ostensibly about the search for a missing cat, it is really a tale about many of the different losses we have to deal with during various stages of our lives.  Followng her reading, which received a standing ovation from her legion of fans, Cisneros spent the rest of her time answering questions from teachers asking how they could get their young students to read more.

At the end of the Cisneros' talk, Judy met me, her bag packed with reading treasures and activities for our grandchildren Audrey and Owen. Together, we headed to the Poetry and Prose tent to hear my favorite contemporary American fiction writer, T. C. Boyle. Boyle, who always makes himself one of the most interesting looking authors writing today, showed up in a bright red jacket, a black and silver intricately designed shirt, and tight black pants that would be appropriate for an on-stage swirling Mick Jagger. To complete the rebel image, Boyle said he was going to ignore his publishing company's order to discuss his just released novel San Miguel and instead read a short story, "The Lie" in its entirety. Boyle briefly introduced the story by saying "This story is for everyone who has had a job you're not really crazy about and told a fib to get out of it. It's called 'The Lie' and believe me, there are personal consequences for that lie." For more than half an hour, Boyle, with his amazing prose, kept the crowd riveted with the story of 26-year-old Lonnie, his wife Clover, their infant daughter, and Lonnie's Slovakian boss Ratko and a sampling of Lonnie's fellow California production studio workers. Even with the introductory warning, given the rich humor which is Boyle's trademark, the abrupt, completely unanticipated  "tragic" ending caught the audience by silent surprise. But, in a second, they unleashed applause befitting a rock star. Boyle waved, exited the stage, and my 1st day at the National Book Festival was over.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Obviously, I was captivated by the authors I got to see. But, at a festival this large, there are many  authors you don't get to see. I divided them into 2 groups - a group I had already seen at previous DC book talks and a group I was disappointed to miss. The 1st group included:
  • Walter Isaacson
  • Tony Horwitz
  • Elizabeth Dowling Taylor
  • Stephen L. Carter
  • Linda Greenhouse
  • Colson Whitehead
  • Walter Dean Myers 
  • Douglas Brinkley
In addition to Jewel and Hendrickson, my disappointed-to-miss group included Robert Caro, Patricia Cornwell, Lois Lowry, and R. L Stine.

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