Books, reading and a bit of celebrity watching were the order of the day at the third annual National Book Festival, which drew an estimated 75,000 people to Washington, D.C.'s National Mall on Saturday, October 4. Attendance at this year's event, organized by the Library of Congress and hosted by First Lady Laura Bush, represented an increase of nearly 50% over last year, when the festival was mostly contained on the lawn of the Capitol and hampered by rainy weather as well as fears about the sniper terrorizing the Washington area.
Mrs. Bush, Librarian of Congress James Billington and authors including Walter Isaacson and Pat Conroy kicked off Saturday's festivities at an opening ceremony in the East Room of the White House for participants and their guests. "Ben Franklin would have loved the National Book Festival," biographer Isaacson observed.
During her welcoming remarks Bush reiterated her well-known passion for books and reading: "A good book is like an unreachable itch; you just can't leave it alone," she said. Mrs. Bush had just returned from a state visit to Europe that included a stop at the first-ever Russian Book Festival for school librarians, held in Moscow. That event, hosted by Russian First Lady Lyudmila Putin, was directly inspired by Bush's efforts; Mrs. Putin had attended last year's U.S. festival as Bush's special guest.
The more than 80 authors in the capital for the weekend agreed that an invitation from Mrs. Bush is hard to refuse, regardless of political affiliation. "This is one of the most impressive collections of writers I've seen in one place," commented Native American storyteller and author Gayle Ross. "People are delighted with Mrs. Bush's heartfelt support of reading; they're tripping all over themselves to get invited. I'm thrilled to be included." Nelson Demille added, "This country is really rich in regional festivals, but the noncommercial, non-partisan focus on books here is amazing. I felt like it was a command performance, but one I wanted to do. I say no to 100 things a year, but not to this."
Goodwill and literacy were indeed two recurring themes of the festival. "Only one-third of fourth, eighth and 12th graders can read proficiently," said Billington. "We've got a real problem in this country. Our message is that writing is exciting and reading is essential."
Pro basketball Hall-of-Famer (and children's book author) Bob Lanier was one of several men's and women's National Basketball Association players on hand to tout the NBA's literacy initiative, Read to Achieve. "It's fabulous to see so many people intrigued by reading," he said. "We've got to keep throwing out positive images of reading role models."
Two Let's Read America pavilions and the Pavilion of States housed representatives from literacy programs in all 50 states, each providing information and giveaways. A Library of Congress tent featured information and demonstrations of the Library's resources and services. Kids were very much a part of the day. Storytellers, costumed characters and other activities provided by such festival sponsors as the Washington Post, Target, AT&T and the National Endowment for the Arts kept young people entertained. Young reporters from the Weekly Reader, Time for Kids and Scholastic News took part in a special children's press conference asking questions of author-actress Julie Andrews and Librarian of Congress Billington. Additionally, Weekly Reader writer Fabien-Navidi Kasmai, age 10, was granted an interview with Mrs. Bush.
Throughout the day the various author tents, which were arranged by such themes as Mysteries & Thrillers and Fiction & Imagination, were filled to capacity and occasionally overflowing. David Maraniss, Anita Shreve, Avi, David Baldacci and Robert Caro were among those in the wide-ranging lineup doing readings and q&a sessions.
On her way to her speaking engagement, mystery author Carolyn Hart enthused, "It's one of the most beautifully organized book events I've ever attended. Everyone involved is so cheerful. The First Lady is remarkable in giving this gift to the American people." Author and host of CBS TV's Meet the Press Bob Schieffer echoed those sentiments. "It is just terrific," he said of the festival. "This is truly a public service they are providing. There is a wonderful spirit here. People are in good humor; it's fun."
Author Juan Williams had kind words as well. "This is a pretty fabulous event and a tremendous turnout. That speaks to me of the hunger in the country for stories; it reaches across all genres and brings people together. Sometimes you can forget about that because the publishing business has become a bit of a factory, worried about numbers and bestsellers."
Two new author pavilions joined the festival this year: Poetry and Home & Family. "The growth in home- and family-related books has been terrific," Billington remarked. Appearances by renowned chef Jacques Pépin and Paige Davis and Frank Bielec of TV's home improvement show Trading Spaces were among the highlights.
A corps of volunteers that included Library of Congress employees as well as the Junior League of Washington kept things moving smoothly. The only operational glitch, according to Pat Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, occurred at the book sales tent. Laws prohibit the sale of certain goods for profit on government property, which means, stressed Schroeder, "that buying books at the festival is not as easy as it could be." At one point the crowd in the tent "made Filene's Basement look wide open," Schroeder said, noting that she'll continue to campaign for changes in this area.
Attendees didn't appear to harbor any serious complaints, however, and seemed genuinely pleased to be in the presence of favorite authors and fellow readers. "I love that this event celebrates reading not as a skill, but as a lifestyle," said educator and author Esmé Raji Codell. And James Patterson, obviously moved by his surroundings, summed up, "This is wonderful. But you could easily quadruple the number of people here if you could just find the right way to get the word out about the power of stories. Somebody's got to tell the story of books—to capture the hearts and minds of the American people."