October 2, 2008

Reflections on the 2008 National Book Festival

On Saturday I attended the 2008 National Book Festival. Overall I found the Festival to be an event about inclusion more than reading, but with a good message that everyone should have access to books and authors, and anyone can write a book about anything. The most striking thing about this event is that it is the polar opposite of what some would think a literary festival would be. If one imagined the festival based on book stores, book reviews, book magazines, and people known to be bookish types, one might expect the Festival to have an air of affluence, scholarliness, seriousness, formality, entitlement, historical purpose and authority. (Read Heidi Julavits' March 2003 Believer piece as a case in point.)

Instead, the Festival seemed to me to be a big, muddy party on the Mall. It brought to mind Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem The New Colossus, of Ellis Island fame and now in the Statue of Liberty. As I was walking the Mall Saturday, I thought of Lazarus’ words, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" Instead of aloof, pensive, coffee-house intellectuals hanging on a writer’s every word, I felt I saw the diversity and breadth of American readers, and for that matter, American citizens. 

The Festival was casual, with people undaunted by three days’ mud on the walking paths. People ate during the presentations, stepped out of tents to take cell phone calls, or camped out in Harley Davidson T-shirts to get a glimpse of popular children’s authors. People got up to ask Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison questions without preparing their remarks or removing their hats or introducing themselves. I think this is great: the proximity, both literally and figuratively, that Americans have to great writers via the National Book Festival is generous and ingenious. ANYONE can ask a question of a U.S. Senator this way, or of Salman Rushdie. And when Daniel Schorr was asked about the role of the media in presidential politics by a less than nonpartisan attendee, the attendee was booed and yelled at from others in the audience screaming that he should ask his question and get out of the way. The Library of Congress organized the Festival, but the People were in charge. 

The Festival mirrored the same inclusion and acceptance that Lazarus spoke of, which I believe is the most treasured value of Americans. The fact that this value is manifest at a book festival was a bit surprising, but it makes me hopeful for the future of books and democracy in America—two freedoms that are inextricably linked.

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