By GAIL FINEBERG
Torrents of words washed over them and into them—the tens of thousands of book lovers, swelling into seas of humanity beneath the white-crested pavilions, thirsting for the personal stories, funny one-liners and serious thoughts of their favorite authors, who fed on the delights of their readers.
“This is not just a festival. This is a feast,” said David Wroblewski, celebrated for the haunting beauty of his first book, “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.” He was speaking at his first National Book Festival, which drew more than 70 beloved writers and 130,000 fans to the National Mall on Saturday, Sept. 26.
Legal-suspense novelist Lisa Scottoline told her audience: “The reason for writing is connecting with readers. That’s what reading is all about, making connections. That’s why I love the National Book Festival.”
“When we read, no one is alone. No one is alien,” said Julia Alvarez, a Middlebury College professor whose books have helped millions bridge gaps in cultural understanding between Latino emigres and their new neighbors in America. “When we read, we enter deeply into the lives of others.”
That mutual love of words and sharing of ideas brought writers and readers face-to-face at the Library’s ninth national celebration of the book. The first wave of readers and autograph-seekers arrived long before the festival opened. They collected their purple programs and matching C-SPAN2 BookTV bags, settled into book-signing lines early for popular authors (8 a.m. for John Grisham), gleaned reading-and-literacy materials from the Pavilion of the States, and waited on folding seats in author pavilions for the crowds to gather and the fun to begin.
The people holding chairs in the first few rows in the History & Biography pavilion for some 45 minutes before the action began were regulars. “I’ve been here since the first book festival. The history authors are my celebrities. If you come next year, we’ll all be here. We’re history groupies,” said Christian M. McBurney, a tax lawyer from Kensington, Md.
“I put the book festival on my calendar a year in advance. I consider this my favorite day of the year. I park myself in the History and Biography pavilion and I don’t budge, all day,” said Len Lefkowitz of Bethesda, Md.
Said Mary Ellen, a retired community-health nurse from Charles County, Md., “I’ve been coming since 2002. It’s like the movie ‘Same Time Next Year.’ Every year we see the same people.”
Streaming onto the festival grounds from the Smithsonian Metro stop, as if from some swollen underground river, festival crowds filled not only all the pavilions for authors, book vendors, literacy promoters and festival supporters, but also all of the walkways.
“We’ve got the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen in the history of the book festival,” announced Jonathan Yardley, chief book critic for The Washington Post, a festival sponsor since the Library of Congress began the tradition in 2001.
That was at 10 a.m., and the festival had only just begun. Yardley was introducing John Grisham, with 235 million books in print worldwide and a huge local following. All those followers, seemingly, attempted to jam into the Fiction & Fantasy pavilion to hear him.
Other big draws at the festival opening were goofball Jon Scieszka, cutting capers with his team of kids’ authors for the launch of the new literacy website, Read.gov, in the Children’s pavilion; James Patterson, the best-selling author of both adult fiction and children’s chapter books, in the Teens & Children pavilion; Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Julia Glass in the Poetry & Prose pavilion; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and new-book author Kirstin Downey in the History & Biography pavilion; and Edgar award-winning mystery writer Michael Connelly in the Mysteries & Thrillers pavilion.
By noon, author-signing lines for John Irving, Jodi Picoult and Judy Blume had surged all the way to Seventh Street at the eastern edge of the festival grounds and snaked four deep on a patch of grass between the sidewalk and the curb. Disappointment turned to joy when a purple-shirted event staffer announced to late-comers that Picoult would sign for an extra hour. John Grisham’s line running in the opposite direction was so long that the “End of Line” sign bobbed in cross-currents of fans angling for positions that might, if they were lucky, carry them eventually to the author’s pen.
Ebbing and flowing faster than the Smithsonian Metro Station could accommodate them, crowds trying to enter the station from the Mall later in the afternoon were directed by someone with a bullhorn to use the Metro access across the street, on the south side of Independence Avenue. “That’s never happened before,” said a Junior League volunteer.
Droning late-afternoon rain put no damper on the enthusiasm of young readers listening to newbie author Jeff Kinney in the Teens & Children pavilion. A young Maryland writer whose “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series has captured the devotion of thousands in just two years, Kinney told his book-waving audience he would return to the book-signing area and autograph more books, even though he had already signed earlier, before his 4:25 p.m. appearance. The big pavilion erupted with a swarm of squealing kids who trailed Kinney through the downpour to the nearly empty, water-soaked author-signing area.
In their wake, a wall of Judy Blume fans—pre-teens and teens who are discovering her, and their moms and dads who recall that she was the first to write frankly about emotions that roil during puberty—pushed one another into the pavilion, filling chairs, squeezing into every square inch of standing space and crushing as close to the stage as physically possible. Straining to hear her, people surrounded the pavilion, forming a colorful circle of unfurled, overlapping umbrellas shedding sheets of rain.
“Come on son,” exclaimed one father, pointing his umbrella in the direction of the subway at the close of her appearance and the festival.
“But Dad, she’s still in there,” said the boy, pulling the man back through a muddy lake toward the stage, where, by then, the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, was making his final appearance of the day, thanking the crowds for coming and his staff and supporters for making it all happen.
“I’ve never seen so many smiling faces, so many umbrellas, and so many readers at a National Book Festival,” he said, beaming.
“This festival tops them all,” he said a few moments later, tired but jubilant, marveling at the record-setting crowd and its exuberance. “I think we’ve hit our stride. I think we’ve found our momentum.”
Webcasts of all author presentations are available at www.loc.gov/webcasts/.
Gail Fineberg is editor of the Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.