National Book Festival Finds Perfect Audience in D.C.'s Literary Set

Authors, poets and scholars — even former members of Congress — will travel once again to one of the nation’s most well-read areas this weekend.

The Library of Congress’ 13th annual National Book Festival, which kicks off at 10 a.m. Saturday and continues through Sunday, is free and open to the public. More than 200,000 people attended last year, and this year’s event includes presentations and book signings from novelist and poet Margaret Atwood, author and book critic Marie Arana, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, and Khaled Hosseini, perhaps best known for his debut novel, “The Kite Runner.”

The event will feature 112 authors and focuses on this year’s theme, “Books That Shaped the World.” Jennifer Gavin, who oversees the festival, said the Library of Congress focused on presenting a much broader variety of literature this year, including divisions devoted to veterans history and regional collections and pavilions for graphic novels and science fiction on Sunday.

Former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has spoken at the festival twice, will be on hand at 10 a.m. Saturday to discuss her new book ,“Unflinching Courage: Pioneering Women Who Shaped Texas.”

“The National Book Festival is a treasure,” the Texas Republican said. “It’s so vibrant and exciting to see so many people who love books and the variety of kinds of books that they showcase. I think it’s great that the Library of Congress has made this available for the people in Washington who are so curious about learning.”

Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award recipient A. Scott Berg speaks at noon Sunday about his newest book, “Wilson,” a biography of the nation’s 28th president, Woodrow Wilson.

“Book festivals in general [are great] ... but when you do it in Washington, it takes on, I think, added meaning just being in the shadow of all of the monuments and all of the history,” Berg said. “As a writer, it’s exciting because most of us writers spend our lives locked up in rooms talking to nobody. For the public, I think it’s wonderful just that a city, that the capital of the United States, should be focused for a weekend on literature. It basically says that books matter, that writing that literature counts in American life. ... It brings everyone into a community in which they are all under one tent talking about this one great thing: literature, books of all kinds.”

Berg, who works without researchers or secretaries, spent 13 years researching and writing “Wilson,” which was released earlier this month.

“I’ve long had an interest in Woodrow Wilson, and recently I’ve come to see two main things about him. The first is I believe Woodrow Wilson was the most influential president of the 20th century, and that seeps now into the 21st century. ... The second is that I believe the most dramatic personal story ever to unfold in the White House was Woodrow Wilson’s, and I think the second really affects the first,” Berg said. “I have tried to write a very personal, humanizing portrait of Woodrow Wilson — that was my goal. His thoughts, his ideas and his ideals are very much a part of American life in the 21st century. ... This was an extremely passionate man who gave his life for a cause as few, if any presidents, have done.”

The Library of Congress also aims to engage more with participants and to create a discussion by allowing people to vote online for the book they feel shaped the world. The event will lead off on Sunday with an essay contest for fifth- and sixth-graders about a book that shaped their lives; there have already been more than 300 submissions.

“I can tell you that I have never seen so many people made so happy by any single government program in one place in my life,” Gavin said. “It’s one of the great joys of being at the book festival, just seeing the look on the faces of the participants. That is a happy bunch of people; they are having a very good time. It’s best to know we bring them this.”

Hutchison, who joined a law firm after retiring from Congress in January, also sits on Bank of America’s global advisory board and contributes to CNBC. She said the event is great for families.

“I’m really excited about being at the book festival again and getting a chance to talk about the book and talk to the people who are interested in history,” Hutchison said.

According to Gavin, the gathering would not be possible without its sponsors, especially the event’s main benefactor, David M. Rubenstein.

“This festival is about supporting literacy and what I guess we would call book culture,” Gavin said. “It’s about supporting the importance of reading and books in people’s lives, regardless of format. There has never been any package quite like the book that brings you knowledge [and] information; it basically packs up the content of somebody else’s brain and serves it to you so you can access it.”

The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday and from noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday on the National Mall. More information and the speaker schedule can be found at loc.gov/bookfest.

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