In her storied career, author Toni Morrison had somehow never made it to the National Book Festival on the mall. It took 11 years for her to come, which is probably why organizers decided to give her the festival’s Creative Achievement award.
You’d think Morrison — who’s won a Nobel, a Pulitzer and just about every other literary prize there is to win — might be blase about another crowd of adoring acolytes. You’d be wrong.
“What’s really comforting for me, being here, is being among people where I don’t have to defend books,” Morrison told the audience at the Library of Congress Friday night.
The 80-year-old Morrison admitted she enjoys reading books on her iPad — especially turning the virtual pages. But when she really covets a book, she insists on holding the real thing in her hands, underlining passages, basically “ruining” it. That’s love.
The festival, now in its 11th year and expanded to 115 authors and two days over the weekend, was all about the old-fashioned, ongoing love affair with reading.
“It’s been one of the great pleasures of my life,” said festival co-chair David Rubenstein, who gave $5.3 million for this year’s gathering — with the likelihood of more if his extravagant praise of Librarian of Congress Jim Billington was any indication.
Morrison, of course, was the marquee draw and feted all weekend at a variety of events. Sporting a jaunty straw fedora, she held forth on books, reading, politics, censorship and anything else that came up.
At a luncheon in her honor at the Hay Adams hotel, Morrison described her life as a young college student at Howard University in 1949 and was asked about her views of Washington these days.
“I think what I’m most aware of right now — in addition to having President Barack Obama as a black man in the White House — there’s such a level of cruelty,” she told the audience. Americans have devolved from “citizens” to “consumers” and now “taxpayers” — a divisive, sinister “kind of poison.”
She was witty, wise, and insightful — but, honestly, she’d rather be talking about her first love. “My life is either reading books, teaching books, editing books or writing books. “
Although Morrison formally received her award Saturday morning, many of her fans skipped her appearance on stage to wait in line for her book signing. Two hours before Morrison was scheduled to begin, her line was already snaking down the Mall, reports our colleague Megan Buerger.
Of course, she wasn’t the only big-name author. With dark clouds looming, the festival front-loaded the lineup with heavy-hitters Saturday — tents were packed for Jennifer Egan, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer for Fiction ( “A Visit From the Goon Squad”), novelist Jim Lehrer and NPR’s Sarah Vowell, who got one of the biggest crowds of the day with her dead-pan humor. “The thing with writing about people is that people just love attention,” she said. “Take Canada, for example. They don’t care if it’s positive or negative, they just say ‘Yes, yes! You noticed us!’”
There was a huge contingent of pint-sized readers with parents in tow. Lots of treats for the kids — and a little star-power for their parents: Actress Julianne Moore.
Didn’t know the flame-haired actress was also a best-selling children’s author? Must not be reading her “Freckleface Strawberry” books. “That’s what these books are about: learning to feel comfortable in your own skin, even if you have so many freckles that some of them connect.”