Book lovers gather at National Book Festival


Sara Rose, 6, left, of Falls Church, searches for the state of Wisconsin, hoping to get her map stamped by Jennifer Ryan, right, at the Wisconsin booth in the Pavillion of the States Saturday during the Library of Congress National Book Festival. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)
September 22, 2012

Thousands of book lovers from around the region flocked to the Mall on Saturday for the National Book Festival, where readers who reveled in books long before they had e’s in front of them mingled happily with those who have come to love the convenience of having an entire electronic library in the palm of one’s hand.

The festival, organized by the Library of Congress and designed to celebrate all that is wonderful about the printed word, continued Sunday , including an appearance by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz.

Now in its 12th year, the two-day festival has become a must-attend event for book aficionados, who greet their favorite authors with some of the same fanaticism that tech fans greet the newest gizmo from Apple. (Walter Isaacson, whose biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs has been a bestseller, was among the authors who appeared Saturday.)

Most author appearances Saturday were before standing-room-only crowds.

“I can’t think of anything better than being able to see my readers in person,” the crime novelist Patricia Cornwell said to a packed crowd during her midday appearance. The festival features at least 10 Pulitzer Prize winners. Subjects range from “Nighttime Ninjas” to President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The Library of Congress strives to make the fair an event that will appeal to the youngest and the oldest members of the family.

This year’s slate also included singer-songwriter Jewel, who told the audience during her Saturday appearance how writing gave her purpose when she was homeless and living out of her car.

U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine had the crowd laughing as he detailed his love of gin.

“I remember once, somebody slipped me acid in a glass of gin and orange juice,” he said. “And I thought, ‘This is the strangest gin.’ And the guy asked me what I was doing staring into space. And I said: ‘You see this ceiling? Its so aggressive!’ ”

“Age does not make you wise,” Levine said, “it makes you slow.”

The festival has built a steady following, attracting folks from near and far. Last year, despite less than ideal weather, more than 200,000 people attended.

Erica Drayton, 28, and her friend Charles Bullard took a 3:45 a.m. Greyhound from New York so they could make it to Saturday’s festival. At 10:45 a.m., they were among at least 100 people waiting in line to meet Isaacson. It somehow seemed appropriate that Drayton was listening to music on her iPhone 5 (which had arrived in the mail Friday), while clutching her soon-to-be-autographed copy of “Steve Jobs.”

“I’m so thrilled to be here,” she said, ticking off a long list of authors she hoped to meet. “I just love book signings. When you get to talk to the author — ohhh.”

Tom Roberts, a dentist from Alexandria, was also in line to meet Isaacson. Roberts, 65, said he remembered Apple from way back and still has one of the original Macintosh computers. His wife’s been after him to throw it away, but he’s stood firm.

With so much to see, seasoned festival-goers also face a dilemma. Given the crowds, it’s almost impossible to see a favorite author in person and still make it to the post-appearance book-signing session.

The Knight family of Lorton solved that problem. Nicholas Knight, 12, was dispatched to buy a copy of R.L. Stine’s “Planet of the Lawn Gnomes,” while Mom, Dad and Nicholas’s two younger siblings staked out spots at the signing. Clutching several crumpled dollar bills in his fist, Nicholas said he loves reading Stine’s “Goosebumps” books because “there’s always a twist at the end.”

More authors were on tap before the festival’s conclusion, including Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, whose most recent book is “The Price of Politics,” and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who recently published “Across that Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change.”

Megan Buerger contributed to this report.

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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