National Book Festival Again Shares Spotlight
Organizers Expect 100,000 Attendees at Annual Event
The National Book Festival has overcome post-9/11 security panic and the D.C. sniper in its five-year history. This year, a massive anti-war protest is scheduled to share Saturday with the festival, but its organizers at the Library of Congress’ Center for the Book are still expecting 100,000 readers to come see their favorite authors at the National Mall.
John Cole, director of the Center, which promotes reading nationwide, said 80 authors are scheduled to attend the event, ranging from Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Safran Foer in the Fiction and Fantasy tent, to children’s authors Meg Cabot and R.L. Stine. The History and Biography tent will feature David Brooks and Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, among others, and visitors can also visit Home and
Family, Mysteries and Thrillers, and the Poetry Pavilion, where Cole said, “a devoted group of people will stick it out all day.”
Authors will give a half-hour presentation, and then spend an hour or so signing their latest books, which can be purchased on the festival grounds. Cole said that book signing is one of the most popular features of the festival. For example, last year fantasy writer Neil Gaiman signed books for five hours and at the end still had to turn people away.
The book festival came to Washington, D.C., with first lady Laura Bush in 2001. Bush hosted a similar festival in Texas when she was first lady of that state, and when her husband became president she proposed starting a national festival to be co-sponsored by the Library of Congress. Bush’s office remains involved, although Cole called her present role “honorary.” Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Cheney, will be one of the authors featured at the Teens and Children tent.
The festival also features a pavilion devoted to the 50 states, where visitors can learn about reading programs around the country. Cole said the national Center for the Book sponsors the annual festival partly to assist state branches in publicizing their programs. Reading promotion programs around the country are now largely supported by private grants and contributions, he said. Recent cuts in funding have meant “there is just less federal money available for this kind of activity,” Cole said, and that has forced new approaches to funding, such as public-private partnerships. Visitors to the Pavilion of the States also can donate to buy books for the victims of Hurricane Katrina near the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama tables.
Cole said Target’s support of the festival is an example of good corporate sponsorship. Target funded “Letters about Literature,” a national competition in which school children wrote letters to authors who had inspired them. The winners will read their letters in the Teens and Children tent and, unbeknownst to them, their chosen authors will be there.
One program that is returning to the National Book Festival this year is the Veterans History Project. Project director Tom Wiener said the program is the brainchild of Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who began by interviewing and recording his uncle and father about their experiences in World War II and the Korean War. The project took off, and in 2001 Congress appropriated funding for it.
The Veterans History Project started out as a collection of oral history accounts from veterans of 20th-century wars, but has grown to include letters, photographs and art by veterans, largely collected by citizen volunteers. There are now 40,000 stories archived in all, and a small sampling is available on the project’s Web site.
Wiener has anthologized some of these stories in the upcoming book “Forever a Soldier.” He will interview some of the men and women whose stories appear in the book in the festival’s Veteran’s History Project pavilion.
Cole sees the festival as a celebration of “the power of a good read,” and as the LOC’s signature event. The festival is a “weapon in the effort to help books and reading stay important in our culture,” he said. “Or maybe to make them more important again.”
The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, rain or shine, on the National Mall between Seventh and 14th streets. Information about the festival is available online at www.loc.gov/bookfest.