Monday, September 7, 2015

First Impressions of the National Book Festival

If anything good came out of the eight-year Bush administration it was librarian Laura's decision to create the National Book Festival! What a glorious celebration of reading and literacy. Watching so many families, of every make and model, thrilling at the chance to meet writers and buy books lifts the heart of this librarian every time. Of course, I'm most proud of the festival that I actually had a hand in - patting my own back now - my own library system's Southwest Florida Reading Festival.

Needless to say, having all the resources of Washington, DC, and the Library of Congress goes a long way to insuring attendance by the finest writers in the land. This year was no exception. The move from the national mall to the Walter Washington Convention center, which saddened me for just a moment or two, has proved to be inspired. Huge ballrooms accommodate the crowds and video will soon be posted on

Louise Erdrich

I had planned my day carefully, fully expecting the women whose writing inspires me, Lousie Erdrich and Marilynne Robinson, to be the pinnacle of the event. Instead, it was the men who shined. Perhaps it was the format, which we've used at our own festival at some authors' request, but it seemed stilted. Many authors do not want the pressure of giving a half hour address and prefer the Q and A, interview approach.

Marilynne Robinson

The interviewers in this case were experienced, thoughtful, and prepared, yet the writers seemed to hold back emotionally. Marie Arana, former editor of the "Washington Post Book World," interviewed Erdrich who received this year's award for the body of her work. Erdrich's genealogical background includes Ojibwe Indian and that native culture informs much of her work. Her latest novel (2012), "The Round House," was a stunning piece of literature which I reviewed here:

Though Arana had to drag it out of her, Erdrich did speak a little bit about some of the wonderful secondary characters who emerged from this novel, also getting her to admit that there is another book about these interesting, complex people forthcoming. Whew! I couldn't help but think that Erdrich hadn't had enough coffee yet.

Robinson on the other hand, was just plain stingy. Ron Charles, who I often mention as one of the finest reviewers working today, also at the "Washington Post," tried valiantly to elicit some kind of emotion from the Pulitzer Prize winner, to the consternation of the audience. He asked several open-ended questions that she shut down with single word answers and at one point, when Charles posited a particularly probing query, Robinson actually said,

"That's a good question."

To which he replied, "Good, because I'm dying up here."

The audience roared in sympathy.

Now I understand that writing is a solitary endeavor. I'm sure that many writers find the required book tours daunting. As introverts, they likely feel uncomfortable touting their books like carnival barkers. I get that. If you read any of Ms. Robinson's incredible works you'll gather that she's hardly an extrovert. Even her writing is quiet. I reviewed her most recent book "Lila," here:

But, if one accepts a speaking engagement, then I believe that person has an obligation to the hundreds of fans who get up early, drive 45 minutes to the metro, spend another half hour on the train, to be inspiring, to be engaging, to be present. And that, unfortunately, was just not the case Saturday.

Tomorrow, though, I'll tell you about the men who knocked my socks off: Phil Klay, Marlon James, Bryan Stephenson, and Viet Than Nguyen, kudos to you!

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