Although, sadly, our schedule only allowed us to attend the Sunday portion of the 2011 National Book Festival held in Washington D.C. the week-end of Sept. 24-25th, we all still had a great time ! ( “We” being self, husband, Eldest Daughter, a granddaughter and a grandson. ) We drove up from the Eastern Shore of Virginia late Saturday and as forecast, Sunday dawned misty, cloudy, definitely looking like rain any minute, but I was completely prepared… plastic rain ponchos, bright blue ( no losing anyone in your group in those neon things ), small umbrellas for everyone, books to be autographed completely safe from the rain enclosed in zip-lock bags and stowed in 2 plastic rolling coolers which, thankfully, served as mobile chairs as well as waterproof storage bins. Happily, it never did actually rain but the clouds kept things cool which was so great, baking in the sun is not my thing.
The Book Festivals are sponsored annually by the Library of Congress and are held on the National Mall, a long green space which more or less stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building. The Book Festival is held on the portion which runs from 7th Street to 14th Street, essentially from the Washington Monument to the Capitol building, a distance of probably a half mile. However, when hoofing around, pulling what seems to be a 1000 pound cooler full of books, I can tell you it seems much, much longer ! This year’s Festival featured 112 authors divided into genres like History and Biography, Fiction and Mystery, Contemporary Life, Poetry and Prose, The Cutting Edge, Graphic Novels, Teens and Children. Each author was allotted about 45 minutes to speak, scheduled in the appropriate genre pavilion and then an hour afterwards for signing books in the book signing area. Fortunately the speeches are videoed to be added to the Library of Congress website so everyone can hear each author’s speech on-line– this is so, so helpful because if you want to get books autographed by a popular author it is necessary to get in that author’s line long, long before the scheduled signing making it virtually impossible to hear an author’s speech live and also get their books signed too. Naturally, Murphy’s Law, the little individual tents for the book signings are at one end of the Mall and the various 8 or 9 pavilions where the authors actually speak are stretched out from there to the other end of the Mall, hence the necessity for hoofing around on shank’s mare for the various events.
Upon arrival about 11:00 am, my husband headed out to listen to the speeches at the “Contemporary Pavilion” while I made a bee line for book signing Tent # 14 where a favorite author and raconteur was scheduled to begin his signings at 2:00 pm. Wondering who ? Think old red tennis shoes, fire engine red sox, a red tie and the phrase, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my home town.” Yes, none other than the supremely talented Garrison Keillor, author of 16 books, editor of numerous other books as well as the host and guiding light behind “A Prairie Home Companion“ , heard Saturday nights on National Public Radio, sponsored by Powdered Milk Buscuits which “give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done” and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery - “if you can’t find it at Ralph’s you probably don’t need it ! “ We were about 7th or 8th in the Keillor line and I held our place while my daughter slipped over to journalist Bob Edward’s tent where he had just begun his signings. My husband and Youngest Son both enjoy listening to Bob Edwards on XM Radio so I had copies of his new book, ” A Voice In The Box : My Life In Radio” ready to be autographed as Christmas gifts for them.
Garrison Keillor arrived on the dot of 2:00 and after speaking briefly with Bob Edwards, who had come over to say hello from the adjacent tent, his initial order of business was to shake hands and have the official Festival photographer take a picture of him with the very first person in line. I have often wondered if some of these authors realize what an effort it is for folks, many of us not exactly spring chickens, to stand in line for hours and hours just to say hello and get a book signed. Clearly Mr. Keillor understood because not only did he make a nice fuss over Person # 1 (who probably had been in line forever ), but instead of sitting at the table and chair set up at each tent for the authors, Garrison Keillor actually stood up for the entire time that he signed books (which was much longer than an hour because his audience had stretched all the way back to the street before they closed the line down to additional entrants.) He was quite gracious, personalized signings if requested, spoke to every person, had a question or funny remark for most, big smiles. ( Told me, deadpan expression, that the first edition I had of his first Lake Wobegon book, Lake Wobegon Days, was so old that it couldn’t be worth much, maybe $5.00, possibly I could get rid of it at a garage sale. ) Upon personalizing a book for her, he inquired about the derivation of Eldest Daughter’s first name, Montaigne, ( from Michel de Montaigne, noted essayist and 16th century French philosopher, whose essay on the education of children could still be a shining example to teachers everywhere). Both of them had a good laugh when she explained how she had hated her name as a child and had tried to convince her 4th grade teacher that she was to be called Linda – - – which I only found out about when Montaigne came home with her papers signed as Linda !
Neal Stephenson was another scheduled author whose books I had packed in my cooler including a first edition of one of my favorite books, Cryptonomicon. A blockbuster of a book which starts with War II, it’s filled with more information than a non-mathematician would ever need to know about secret codes, cryptology, engineering and the invention of the “Turing Machine”, the precursor to modern computers. Alternating chapters create a story set in the 1990′s, the characters being descendants of the WWII characters who are using advanced telecom and computer technology to create a secret data haven. And along the way one also learns the best way to eat Captain Crunch ! Doesn’t sound that great but I can tell you it’s mesmerising ! I love long books because if you really are enjoying a book you don’t want it to end — happily, this book goes along for over 900 pages, each page a joy – - except for the really detailed math pages but if you are a non-math person like me… well those pages are best just skipped over !
After the Neal Stephenson signings there was still time to slip over to hear Bob Edward’s lecture in the contemporary pavilion, quite interesting, then a fast walk through a few of the other pavilions and finally off to dinner in D.C.’s Chinatown. We had a delicious meal at a Zagat reviewed restaurant, China Express at 746 6th Street, NW, highly recommended in numerous reviews and rightly so. The steaming hot noodle soup with pork slices was delicious, tasty handmade noodles properly chewy, the roast pork buns lived up to their reputation and the eggplant in garlic sauce was absolutely perfect, a melt- in-your- mouth dish with a deliciously spicy sauce. Definitely not much in the way of decor but excellent food, generous helpings, fast service, the grandkids had a ball slurping up the long noodles, everyone agreed we had to eat here again when next in town. We left pleasantly full, the day ended, goodbye 2011 National Book Festival, hello Eastern Shore. Can’t wait until spring when the Library of Congress announces the 2012 Festival authors !
P.S. I always love to hear about corporate giving for education and a shout-out to Target is due here. According to the official Festival brochure, Target was the Distinguished Corporate Benefactor of the 2011 National Book Festival and the company is on track to having donated one billion dollars (that’s billion with a B ) to education by 2015 through a program whereby it donates 5% of its income each year to the cause of improving education, particularly reading skills.
(Posted by Marlene Cree, licensed Virginia agent with Blue Heron Realty Co., 7134 Wilsonia Neck Dr., Machipongo, VA)