WASHINGTON—A cloudy day that eventually turned into light rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm for the thousands who turned out for the ninth National Book Festival, held September 26 on the National Mall. The event, which is free and sponsored by the Library of Congress (LOC), stimulates the imagination and passion for reading.
Young and old readers get a chance to interact with the nation’s best-selling authors, illustrators and poets. The tents stretched from 7th to 14th Street, and covered book categories from History and Biography to Mysteries and Thrillers, Fiction and Fantasy, Poetry and Prose, to Children. C-SPAN was broadcasting live from one of the pavilions.
Over 70 authors and illustrators came to Washington to participate this year and promote the LOC’s objective of “celebrating the joys of reading” and building life-long habits of reading. Spotted in the crowds, speaking to audiences or book signing were John Grisham, John Irving, Julia Avarez, Judy Blume, Ken Burns with Dayton Duncan, Jodi Picoult, celebrity chef Paula Deen, James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks, Katharine Neville, Patrick Carman and Junot Diaz.
Many youngsters surrounded author Jeff Kinney, 38, who must be pleased that his third book in his series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw, became the number one bestseller in the country after it came out in January, according to his website. He spoke to this reporter about his fourth book in the series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, which is to be released this October.
“This is the first time that the book is not about the school year, but about the summer” said Kinney, who came from his home in Massachusetts. At first he thought Greg, the main character, would be spending time outdoors and going to the beach, but then Kinney realized that this is the kind of kid that would, “draw the curtains and play video games.” Kinney explained that he is not a “cool kid,” or “the most popular,” and so his readers can readily identify with him.
Kinney grew up in the Washington area, at Fort Washington, Maryland and went to school at the University of Maryland in College Park where he majored in computer science and criminal justice. But as a frustrated cartoonist, he eventually found his way into writing. His advice to children is: “Do your best in everything you do, and even if you are washing dishes, try to do the best job because you’ll get a lot more out of life if you do.”
Turning to a more serious book titled Home (2008), author Marilynne Robinson has written a novel that takes place in the same town as her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead (2004). Robinson said she looked at the same characters from another side. Living in Iowa where she teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, her new novel Home was a National Book Award finalist.
Set in the Midwest in the mid 20th century, there is much discussion between two of the characters about the Civil Rights movement. Robinson said that the Abolitionists left something of a heritage in Iowa culture that “anticipated the Civil Rights movement” later. To demonstrate her point, she said that Iowa never passed miscegenation laws.
Ken Burns and collaborator Dayton Duncan on the book and documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, spoke to a large crowd and together answered questions from the audience and from callers around the country about their new series on the national parks that will be airing on PBS the day after this book festival, on September 27. The duo wanted more than to promote their book and the TV series; they wanted to share some of their passion with others for the national parks and advocated that all Americans should appreciate their heritage and not take it for granted.
Burns and Duncan are good storytellers too, which may account for the success of their past PBS series. Duncan explained how the Grand Canyon, which we all would regard as a logical selection for a national park wasn’t always thought that way. It was first proposed in 1882 and got nowhere, and even Theodore Roosevelt, a passionate advocate for our national parks, failed to convince Congress. It wasn’t until 1919 that it became a national park, which will preserve it into perpetuity.
In our times, not all “books” consist of printed pages. At the festival were two promoters of audio books on Sirius XM Book Radio. Program Director Maggie Linton and Kim Alexander, who hosts “Fiction Nation,” were educating people about the books that satellite radio is broadcasting 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Now they are broadcasting (Sirius 117; XM 163) contemporary works like Steve Berry’s The Alexandria Link and Debra Webb’s Investigation 101 as well as classics like Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre and Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
One of the aims of this National Book Festival is to educate people about the Library of Congress (LOC) and its rich holdings. The LOC had its own pavilion, where it displayed the many resources available to the public. “It is the world’s largest library, containing more than 138 million items in nearly every language and format—from ancient Chinese woodblock prints to CDs,” says the LOC.
One interesting project that was shown in the LOC pavilion was “Chronicling America: Historical American Newspapers,” which provides free access to select digitized newspaper pages from historical American newspapers. The objective is to digitize historical newspapers taken from libraries in every U.S. state and territory. The website, www.loc.gov/ndnp is supported jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the LOC.
The current Librarian of Congress is 80-year-old James H. Billington, who opened and closed the Festival with remarks. Dr. Billingham has worked hard to make the Library’s collections available to the public on the Internet.
Presently, 15.3 million items from the LOC’s American history collections are available on www.loc.gov. Dr. Billingham has been awarded numerous honors, including 40 honorary doctorates and the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Bush in 2008.