13 Fragments on the 2017 National Book Festival

The first sign we were in for a crowd: the entire subway car I’d just boarded at Gallery Place emptied out, one stop later, at Mount Vernon Square. Everyone started murmuring the same thought: “A lot of people going to the book festival.”

I was working off virtually no sleep. I almost decided to just stay in bed and listen to the rain falling down on Baltimore. Instead, I dragged myself to Penn Station and bought a ticket on the southbound MARC train. As we passed through station after all-but-vacant station on the way to D.C., I found myself rehearsing the transfer routes over and over again. I’m nervy when it comes to transit: being stranded due to a missed connection is one of my overriding fears. So is not knowing where to go next.

The mass of people I followed up the escalators and into the festival was a bit younger than I’d anticipated. I tend to assume that most people who enjoy reading are at least my grandmother’s age, forgetting that for children reading is still novel, still exciting in and of itself. Also, younger people probably have more stamina to walk back and forth through the cavernous labyrinth that is the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Occasionally the event staff would ask if we were looking for a particular author. As ten a.m. rapidly approached, literally everyone I heard gave the same answer: “David McCullough.” “I’m certainly not alone, then,” I thought as we all snaked our way from one set of escalators to the next. I’m ashamed to admit he’s the only author on the schedule I’ve read. (A used paperback copy of Truman, which has since fallen apart, is the best twenty-five cents I’ve ever spent.)

The organizers placed the main stage of the festival in the most out-of-the-way spot possible, in a ballroom on the third floor. Later on, I would guess that this was to better manage foot traffic. Some of my colleagues would attempt to see J. D. Vance of Hillbilly Elegy fame, only to immediately give up upon seeing the line. Best to keep that crowd isolated. (That there were sizable lines at a book festival is about 1 part frustrating to 3 parts heartening.) I lucked out with McCullough: I was able to waltz in and find a seat right as the Librarian of Congress started playing master of ceremonies. Perhaps 10 a.m. is still early on a Saturday. Perhaps the rain kept people away. Or perhaps we just live in a world where Thomas Friedman is more popular than David McCullough.

I had about an hour to kill before Alice McDermott’s talk. (Full disclosure, if ramblings require one: McDermott is a professor at my institution.) I went down and around and then down again and around again to the book sales, grabbing a copy of McCullough’s new book. I thought about getting it signed, only to discover while in line to check out that the book was already, in fact, signed. Really, I should have noticed the sticker on the front cover a lot sooner than that.

McDermott’s forthcoming book sounds exactly like the sort of thing I would recommend to my grandmother, and I mean that in the best way possible. She raised an interesting point about street scenes in films nowadays: you don’t see nuns in them all that often anymore. I suppose if I imagine nuns walking down the street, it’s in the context of the bomb scene from the Adam West Batman movie.

As someone who writes poetry, I was of course disappointed and not in the least bit surprised to see the poetry room was only half-filled at best for Marie Howe and Adrian Matejka. At least those empty seats got to see something interesting. Sure, the poetry was pretty solid; I ended getting Matejka’s new collection. But I’m more talking about Howe’s stage presence, which was…I think I settled on the term “space cadet.” She was not aware that there were screens behind her (to help the people in the back, y’know, actually see what’s happening.) She was rather confused when she noticed people staring up and to the side, and startled to see her own face projected twice over.

I have to wonder if the Library of Congress will edit that part out of the recording. I really hope they don’t.

Of everyone at the festival, Jesmyn Ward was the one author I’d been most meaning to read. Knowing me, I shall now resolve to read her and then not get to it for another 12-18 months. I really ought to, though, for her new book sounded pretty interesting. (Alas, by this point, my energy was starting to flag, so the specifics have faded from my memory. At least all of this should be on Internet at some point in the near future.)

Question from a child at John Scalzi’s presentation: “When you were writing your books, did you feel good about yourself?” That sounds both like an accusation and a prodding to a potentially harrowing thought. Well done, kid.

Thing on the program I missed but which sounded enticing: “Walden, a game.” I have to believe it was like the terrible idea I had to make a video game adaptation of Silas Marner, in which the player-character just works at weaving for years and years, then has all their gold stolen seemingly at random.

While walking past one of the children’s stages, we overheard the presenter explaining why District of Columbia license plates read “Taxation Without Representation.” Never to early to get started on the path to revolution. If a book festival is to be good for anything, it might as well be good for that.

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