Even indoors, book lovers flock to National Book Festival


Book lovers Iris Hernandez, a pediatrician, and her son, Damian, read at the National Book Festival

The celebrated National Book Festival, held on the Mall in a picnic-like outdoor atmosphere for 13 years, came indoors for the first time this year. Organizers cut the festival from two days to one long 12-hour day. Instead of late September, when it’s usually held, doors opened on Saturday during the long Labor Day weekend when many people are out of town. And Metro is doing track work.

So the big question is: Is it working?

Bob and Susanne Morris weren’t sure at first. They retired D.C. couple are die-hard festival-goers, braving heat, humidity, rain and bigger crowds every year since the festival’s founding in 2001. But it took them less than an hour roaming around the cavernous Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the site of this year’s festival, before coming to their conclusion.

“We immediately decided it’s so much better,” said Bob Morris, 77, a retired communications management trainer. “We’re able to attend so many more events. In previous years, you couldn’t hear very well, or there were just too many people in a tent, so people would just drift in and out. But this set-up is excellent.”

Susanne Morris, 76, who worked as a trainer as well, agreed. The diminutive Morris said she often had trouble seeing in the crowded tents on the mall, and, if she didn’t get to a session early to get a seat, she spent most of her time standing, craning her head to get a glimpse of the action.

“This is so much better,” she said.

“We know where we’re going next,” Bob Morris said. “The rooms are easy to find. The temperature’s perfect, what more could you want?”

And rather than rows of portable toilets, there are plenty of indoor bathrooms.

Becky and Megan Rast were just leaving the talk by author E.L. Doctorow, who explained that writers need to break the rules and, as poet Ezra Pound said, “make it new.”

This is the first National Book Festival for Megan, who moved to the D.C. area two years ago and works for an international nonprofit, and her mother, Becky, a retired high-school teacher who was visiting from Atlanta. The fact that it was indoors made no difference to them. They eagerly circled authors from around the world they wanted to hear, in search of new favorites. It didn’t matter to them that the atmosphere, rather than a raucous outdoor picnic atmosphere as in years past, felt like a somewhat subdued convention.

“We’ve been to lots of book festivals in other places, and they’re all indoors, so this is nothing new,” Becky Rast said. “To me, it’s hard to have a bad book festival.”

To Fleming Smith, 18, a writer who’s already written several novels and is an avid reader – her Christmas present was a trunk filled with 200 classics – the festival location was the last thing on her mind. She was eager to hear Rep. John Lewis (D) recounting his experiences in the civil rights movement, and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor interviewing her brother, H. Alan Day, and his co-author on their book about wild horses: “The Horse Lover: A Cowboy’s Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs.”

“There’s so much going on,” Smith said, before dashing off with her parents, who’d brought her from Georgia to the District and the Book Festival for a surprise birthday trip.

Book lovers tweeted through the day at the National Book Festival. The main thing? The bought books.
Book lovers tweeted through the day at the National Book Festival. The main thing? The bought books.

Last year, a record 200,000 book lovers waited in long lines and milled from tent to tent to hear their favorite authors, buy books and get them signed. But when the National Park Service installed a new watering system and wanted festival organizers to install special flooring to preserve the grass, the officials with Library of Congress, the festival organizer, decided it was too expensive and made the call to come inside.

Longtime festival goers expressed dismay with the change. But Iris Hernandez, 44, a pediatrician and mother of Damian, 7, said she never considered not coming. Hernandez sat on a blue carpet in the kids’ section as Damian, in a small red bean bag chair was absorbed in his book, Star Wars Jedi Academy, Return of the Padawan, and a volunteer read “The Night Parade” to children sitting on an alphabet carpet.

“Honestly, it was nice to be outside, but we’ve adapted,” she said. “I’m more disappointed that it’s only a day. But maybe because they’re staying open later, more people will come.”

For the first time, the National Book Festival will stay open until 10 pm – they ended before sundown on the National Mall. The theme this year is “Stay Up With a Good Book,” and the late hours and indoor location mean that the festival has expanded to include movies, cooking demonstrations and a session on graphic novels.

Bob and Susanne Morris said they’re thrilled with the diversity of offerings. But they’re not sure they can stay up that late. “If we saw them all, that would make for a really long day.”

Brigid Schulte writes about Good-Life: work-life issues, time, productivity, gender and income inequality. She is the author of the bestselling Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One has Time.

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Michelle Boorstein · August 25, 2014