Everything you ever wanted to know about the National Book Festival (but were afraid to ask)

September 14, 2012

How much does it cost to attend?

The National Book Festival — Sept. 22-23 — is a recession-proof bargain: 125 authors, illustrators and storytellers over two days of literary treasure absolutely free! The total cost — about $2 million — is covered by gifts to the Library of Congress, including a $5 million donation from Washington financier David M. Rubenstein to support the festival from 2010 to 2014.

But I hate crowds.

Even Henry David Thoreau would leave his cabin for this festival. Although 200,000 people are expected to attend, the big tents are arranged so that the crowd never seems overwhelming. You can see and hear no matter where you’re sitting because the sound system is superb and the authors speak from raised platforms.

Where can I park my car?


(Jesse Lefkowitz/For The Washington Post)

At home. As Emily Dickinson said, “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away.” Same goes for Metro: The closest stop is Smithsonian on the Blue/Orange lines. The Festival is between Ninth and 14th streets; you may find a spot on Jefferson or Madison Drive. But while you’re driving around like a zombie looking for a place to park, we’ll be listening to Colson Whitehead talk about “Zone One.” Use your braaains!

Can I ride a bike to the festival?

As usual, James Joyce’s “Ulysses” provides the perfect answer: “Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle.” There are bike racks at the Smithsonian Metro stop and several Capital Bikeshare stations around the Mall. Make Gerty proud.

What should I wear?

Some people will come dressed as Arthur the aardvark, the Cat in the Hat, Curious George and other characters inspired by beloved children’s books. But leave that to the professionals. On a sunny day, the temperature inside an Alpha Pig costume on the Mall will cook your bacon. Wear light clothing and comfortable shoes. The festival covers almost a half-mile, so you’ll be walking over a lot of dusty ground.

Should I bring the kids?

You must! Two full pavilions are devoted to authors who write for children and young adults. Your little ones under 5 will love the Read & Build Area, featuring guided activities, songs and more Lego bricks than Strega Nona has pasta. There’s also a “Build-a-Book” station and a 19th-century stagecoach replica where kids can hear stories and try their hand with a lasso. In the PBS Kids pavilion, children (and adults!) can pose for pictures with some of their favorite characters (parents: Bring your camera). Trying to convince your surly teens to come along? Show them the line-up for the sci-fi, fantasy and graphic novels pavilion on Sunday.


(Jesse Lefkowitz/For The Washington Post)

What should I bring?

This special issue of Book World. And sunscreen. You’ll want to bring something to drink, too, or cash to buy bottled water. Maps and programs will be available on the grounds. C-SPAN will hand out free tote bags. Books by the presenting authors will be for sale at the Barnes & Noble tent. Feel free to play Emma and Mr. Knightley with a picnic under the trees along the Mall.

Can I get Patricia Cornwell to sign my copy of “Red Mist”?

All the authors — from Nobel Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa to Pulitzer Prize-winner Marilynne Robinson — will be available to sign copies of their books. Check the signing schedule (it’s different than the speaking schedule), and go early if your happiness depends on getting an autograph from young dragon-tamer Christopher Paolini.

Where can I eat?

You can buy traditional festival fare on the grounds along Jefferson Drive and Madison Drive. There are restaurants in most of the museums along the Mall; the food at the National Museum of the American Indian is particularly delicious and unique. The McDonald’s in the Air and Space Museum has served — in the words of Carl Sagan — “billions and billions.”

Where can I go to the bathroom?

The authors will be using an air-conditioned trailer that’s more luxurious than your home. But don’t think about that; it will only make you more envious of their glamorous lives. The Library of Congress has ordered 140 porta-potties (including ones that are ADA accessible) along Madison Drive. Early in the day, these are surprisingly nice; later in the day, remember what Ada Doom saw in “Cold Comfort Farm.” Public restrooms are also available in the museums around the Mall.

Can I get Michael Connelly to read my manuscript?

In the words of Detective Harry Bosch, “Put that manuscript down now and step away.” Although your unpublished novel is, no doubt, a masterpiece, leave it in your desk drawer. These authors are here to tell you about their books, not to help you find an agent.

How can I follow or tweet about the festival on Twitter?

Tag your photos with and your tweets with the hashtag #natbookfest. Many of the festival authors, such as @LisaScottoline and @RL_Stine, are active tweeters. The Library of Congress (@librarycongress) will be live-tweeting both days of the festival.

Can I ask Charlaine Harris why Sookie doesn’t try dating a non-dead guy?

Don’t worry; she won’t bite. After every author presentation, members of the audience are invited to ask questions. Be brief. Be specific. Or the vampires will swoop down on you . . .

What if I’m in a witness relocation program?

All the author presentations are videotaped by the Library of Congress. If you don’t want to be part of the permanent collection, don’t go up to the microphone and ask a question.

Will any surprise guests show up at the festival?

Just between us: Keep an eye out for Mark Twain. (The rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated.) He’d love to talk with you about his favorite books, but if he asks you for help painting a fence, just walk away.

What accommodations are made for people with special needs?

ASL interpreting services are provided in all the author pavilions during scheduled events. The First Aid, Accessibility Information and Lost & Found Tent offers access to ASL interpreters, assistive listening devices, large-print programs, braille programs and other special services.

Books on paper are so 20th century. What have you got for the technorati?

Come see the Digital Bookmobile — a steampunk creation that connects the old library-on-wheels to the Internet of the future. In this 74-foot-long tractor-trailer, you can learn about borrowing e-books from public libraries and try out various mobile devices.

Will people bring their dogs?

One big red dog will cast a friendly shadow over the festival: Clifford is turning 50 — or 350 in dog years! Stop by the PBS Kids pavilion to share your birthday wishes with the Brobdingnagian pup. If your own pooch is dying to see Walter Isaacson or Lois Lowry — and who can blame him? — make sure you keep him on a leash and pick up after him.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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