Thomas Jefferson could not live without his books. Apparently, neither could nearly 200,000 of his countrymen. At the very least, they couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday than by wandering around with other bibliophiles.
The Library of Congress hosted its 15th annual National Book Festival last weekend, and two of the people that worked the hardest to keep Borders in business were there. By that, I mean my mother and I went to the event.
Never having been to a book festival before, we didn’t quite know what to expect. As it turns out, it was exciting enough to keep us going without a break – literally, we didn’t take a rest or eat lunch on Saturday – from 10 in the morning until 7:30 at night. Essentially, the event was a playground for intellectuals and book enthusiasts, with a whole convention center, comprised of two buildings that completely cover two city blocks, full of books, readings, authors’ talks, and panel discussions about books, writing, and the reading experience.
Writers from all sorts of genres were there. Imagine our surprise when we found some rather big names on the attendees list: Al Roker, David Baldacci, Lisa Scottoline, David McCullough, and Tom Brokaw, among others. Almost all of the authors who were speaking at the event were also offering book signings in the afternoon.
The book signing lines, by the by, were unbelievable. The Junior League of Washington was running the show, and they had it down pact. Honest to Pete, they knew exactly which line you needed to stand in, how long it would take, how many books the author would sign, if the author would personalize the signings, and what times authors were going to be at their book signing tables. For an event where masses of people are trying to mob a single person in order to get a signature, these ladies kept everything calm, collected, and moving right along.
The line for Tom Brokaw’s talk, on the other hand, was a veritable test of just how far American civility can extend. Naturally, everyone wanted to see one of America’s most famous and most trusted news anchors of all time. Not just a lot of old folk, mind you. Everyone. I would say that about half of the people standing in line were in their early twenties. While I was geeking out about the talk to my brother a bit later, he asked me if I even knew Tom Brokaw’s show. Even for people my age, Tom Brokaw is the news. As the talk before his was winding up, the line outside the ballroom door was growing and growing. Very quickly, it came to resemble some sort of agitated snake, coiled and ready to strike as soon as those doors opened. There were so many people in line, in fact, that they had difficulties getting the people who were in the ballroom for the preceding talk out so that we could get in. The talk was very quickly at capacity and the doors were closed. Very shortly after the talk, I found that a rather large number of people who had been in line to get into the talk had not been admitted. I felt like one of the chosen ones.
His talk was excellent – just what we have come to expect from Tom Brokaw. He spoke about his early life and how he decided to get into journalism, as well as what he thought the good and bad points of his journalistic career were. He said that he loved journalism and sharing the news, but he wasn’t overly fond of the hours. More than one of his family vacations were cancelled last minute as the result of the Berlin Walling and other similar incidents (here, we see the inconveniences of the triumph of democracy). Another topic of great interest to the audience was his book The Greatest Generation, a collection of stories about people during World War II. As someone who recently has developed an interest in war stories, I found it fascinating to hear him talk about why he chose to write this book and share the stories of people that the nation holds as heroes.
From Tom Brokaw’s talk, we ran down to the lower level of the convention hall as fast as we could – no small feat in a building absolutely brimming with an equal number of people who are trying to get somewhere and who have their noses stuck in books – and jumped in the book signing lines. It was divide and conquer: Tom Brokaw was signing multiple books, but David Baldacci was only signing one per person, and they were doing so at the same time. I took both my mother’s copy of The Greatest Generation and mine and stood in line for Tom Brokaw, while my mother recruited my brother (who had driven in from Baltimore later in the afternoon) to get her second book signed by David Baldacci. Do any of us think he was fooled when two people in a row asked to have the dedication made out to Lori? No. We do not. And we regret nothing.
After going into fits of nerdy glee over our newly-signed editions, we once again sharpened our elbows and made our way back to the main floor of the convention center in time to get into David Baldacci’s talk. This was another great talk. Baldacci talked about how he became a writer and shared some amusing anecdotes about his misadventures as a writer. One of my favorites included John Grisham, iced tea, and the reason Baldacci doesn’t write about damsels in distress. You’ll have to attend one of his talks to get the full story. He also spoke about his favorite philanthropic mission, public libraries, and why he thinks they’re important for neighborhoods. All in all, very interesting (and entertaining).
But wait, says you. This is a library event, meant to help promote literacy! What about the children? Well, says I, they got one of the coolest speakers of all. None other than Buzz Aldrin has a children’s book out about Mars. Needless to say, the astronaut’s session with a book about outer space was filled to capacity in no time. Whether the kids understood how cool that was, I don’t know. It was obvious that their grandparents, who probably watched the moon landing on television, did. After the talk, they all moved to the bookstore, where they proceeded to purchase every single copy of his book in the convention center. Unfortunately, my mother and I were not fast enough for the army of grandmothers who have astronautical dreams for their grandkids, and we left the Book Festival short an astronaut book. We did, however, find a book about the Port Huron to Mackinac sailboat race, so we Michiganders were happy (it’s sort of the same thing).
According to a recent Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who claim that they don’t read (paperbacks, e-books, audiobooks, nothing) is dropping. Perhaps they were brought to events like this.