By ERIN ALLEN
The 10th annual National Book Festival, organized and sponsored by the Library of Congress, was held on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama served as honorary chairs for the event. The festival, a celebration of the joy of reading for all ages, is free and open to the public. For more information about the National Book Festival, including a 10-year retrospective video, author webcasts and podcasts, go to www.loc.gov/bookfest/.
It’s 9:30 a.m. The sun is blazing. Few breezes interrupt the morning heat. Dust stirs on the National Mall as droves of people stream onto the grounds, converging into large white tents, scrambling to grab a seat.
No, the circus has not come to town. But with the smell of food in the air, excited voices being carried on the wind and young and old alike mixing and mingling, the scene is reminiscent of the big top, replete with costumed characters, fun and games, and amazing feats … of words, that is.
Setting a new attendance record, an estimated 150,000 book-lovers gathered on the National Mall on Saturday, Sept. 25, for the 10th annual National Book Festival. Celebrating a “Decade of Words and Wonder,” nearly 1 million people have attended the event since 2001.
Despite 90-degree heat, the swath of land between third and seventh streets remained a steady buzz of activity, with festivalgoers ebbing and flowing through the pavilions to hear their favorite authors speak about their work, their inspirations and, most of all, their own love of books. Watching over it all were the United States Capitol and the Washington Monument—symbolic bookends to a common passion.
“Every one of the hundreds of staff and volunteers who worked hard to make the National Book Festival a success this year should feel very proud—we set a new attendance record, despite the unexpectedly hot weather,” said Jennifer Gavin, project manager for this year’s festival. “And everyone was in a good mood despite the sizzling temperatures. It just goes to show that people really wanted to be there.”
Before the festival even started, readers were settling into book-signing lines.
Steven Roberts, Isabel Allende and Orhan Pamuk already had fans standing in line hours before their scheduled signings.
Other big draws at the festival were former First Lady Laura Bush in the History & Biography pavilion; “Hunger Games” trilogy author Suzanne Collins in the Teens & Children pavilion; four-time New York Times best-selling author Ken Follett in the Fiction & Mystery pavilion; National Book Award-winner Jonathan Franzen in the Poetry & Prose pavilion; and “Top Chef” contestant Spike Mendelssohn in the Contemporary Life pavilion.
“You don’t happen to know where the bibliophile anonymous tent is, do you?” Valerie Ziobro asked jokingly while awaiting Allende’s talk in the Fiction & Mystery pavilion. A Falls Church, Va., resident, Ziobro has been to almost every festival since its inception.
“I didn’t bring my wallet today, though,” she admitted. “If I buy one more book, my apartment will explode.” A hush went through the crowd as Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, looking excited and energetic in his patterned shirt and dark blazer, took to the stage to open the festival.
“Everybody loves a good story; they unify people,” he said, noting the international flavor of this year’s event.
“Young adults who have virtually grown up with the National Book Festival have come back year after year,” he added. “It’s never the same experience.”
In fact, through the Old Dominion Chapter of The Links, 100 students from West Gate Elementary, Godwin Middle School, Stonewall Middle School and Hylton High School attended. It marked the fourth time the organization has sponsored the Prince William County, Va., students.
Billington gave special recognition to major donor David Rubenstein for his gift of $5 million over five years to support the festival. (See Information Bulletin, June 2010.)
“To another five years,” saluted the Librarian to raucous applause and cheers.
Many authors opened their talks with an appreciation not only for the fans braving the heat to attend the festival but also for those who work diligently to promote a love of reading.
“I know many of you are librarians, and I feel I should say something,” said novelist Elizabeth Kostova. “I love librarians, I love books and I’m thrilled to see such an outpouring on the Mall. It’s a great gift to children to be given books and taken to the library.”
“I can’t believe I’m here, I’m alive and I’m speaking English,” exclaimed Anchee Min, who once lived under the communist rule of Mao Zedong. “This is such a wonderful moment. It reminds me of when I first landed in America in 1984. Thank you, America, for giving me a chance.”
“Thank you for coming, for the support you give us as writers,” said biographer James McGrath Morris. “When we’re working alone for five years, it’s nice to know you’re out there.”
“It seems like a miracle to me to have people come out to hear an author,” said novelist Jonathan Franzen.
“Joie de libre!” exclaimed children’s book publisher and reviewer Anita Silvey.
The bustling crowd showed no signs of slowing down as the day wore on, swarming the sidewalks, pitching impromptu picnics on the grass and keeping the subway system very busy.
“We’ve come here several years now, and we always have a great time,” said Stephanie Zeebars of Spring Castle, Pa. “We love books, we love reading and learning. There are endless opportunities on a day like this.”
“My favorite part about the book festival—I just like the air here and how books are celebrated,” said Nancy Hunt of Westport, N.Y.
“I really get a charge out of seeing all the kids and how excited they are about reading and books, because that is something that will last a whole lifetime,” said Bill Lowenburg of Pennsylvania.
The question of the day seemed to be, “Where can I get one of those bags?” Both C-SPAN and PBS handed out totes, making the Mall a sea of green and red, as if Christmas had come to town early. Stuffed in those bags were festival programs, posters and a variety of other goodies.
When not attending author presentations, book lovers filled the Pavilion of the States. There, all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U. S. territories were represented, each featuring information about their literacy- and reading-promotion programs.
A hub of activity was the Let’s Read America pavilions. Target, a charter sponsor of the National Book Festival, featured “Mail from the Mall,” where festivalgoers could have their pictures taken in front of a green screen then have their images incorporated into the book festival poster or other book-related backdrop and put on a postcard.
Children sang along with PBS KIDS’ SteveSongs, enjoyed Read Alouds with Martha from Martha Speaks, and posed for pictures with PBS KIDS characters and other favorites such as Curious George, Clifford the Big Red Dog and The Cat in the Hat.
Tucked away in the pavilions were little literary havens where parents at any given moment could be found reading to their children or festivalgoers taking a moment to relax and soak up the bookish atmosphere.
Another highlight of the festival included the launch of “Gateway to Knowledge,” a traveling Library of Congress exhibit on a tractor-trailer that will visit some 60 communities across America, sponsored by the Abby and Emily Rapoport Foundation.
Visitors to the Library of Congress pavilion had the opportunity to learn about the Veterans History Project, genealogy research, preserving personal collections, the World Digital Library and the exhibitions that comprise the Library of Congress Experience.
Overheard were two teenage girls discussing the Library’s Twitter archive.
“Did you know they are archiving everything on Twitter?” said one.
“Whoa!” said the other.
One tweet that will be preserved in the archive perhaps best sums up the 2010 National Book Festival experience: “My lips are chapped, I’m sunburned and dying of heat, but I met some of my favorite living authors today and it was totally worth it.”
Erin Allen is a writer-editor in the
Library’s Office of Communications.