Correction to This Article
A Sept. 25 Style article incorrectly said that novelist Michael Chabon declined, for political reasons, an invitation to this year's National Book Festival. The invitation he turned down was to a previous year's festival.

Chapter and Verse

A C-SPAN crew interviews author Tom Wolfe, wearing his trademark white suit, at the National Book Festival on the Mall.
A C-SPAN crew interviews author Tom Wolfe, wearing his trademark white suit, at the National Book Festival on the Mall. (By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 25, 2005

"I am large, I contain multitudes," Dana Gioia is saying.

The chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts stands onstage in the Poetry Pavilion at the National Book Festival on the Mall. He's a poet himself, but these are not his words -- they're Walt Whitman's. Gioia and New Hampshire poet Donald Hall have teamed up for a special tribute to Whitman; they're honoring the 150th anniversary of "Leaves of Grass."

Outside the pavilion, streams of sign-carrying demonstrators ("Bush Lies, Who Dies?") head for the streets around the White House. A helicopter whup-whups incessantly overhead. Applause bursts from the nearby Fiction and Fantasy Pavilion, where someone -- is it Tom Wolfe? -- is getting ready to speak.

Inside, fannies are parked in most of the pavilion's 375 chairs. Hall reads Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." Gioia counters with some of the great man's best-known lines.

"I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. . . ."

Poets may not be at the center of 21st-century cultural life, unless you count rappers (and maybe we should, though none grace the Poetry Pavilion today). They may not be household names, like the white-suited Wolfe or the venerable historian-biographer David McCullough. They surely don't move product like Sandra Brown, author of more than 50 bestsellers, who was cracking jokes about her steamy sex scenes at the Mysteries and Thrillers Pavilion a little while ago.

But they're here. And one way to look at the National Book Festival is: Miracle of miracles, the poets have a stage of their own.

* * *

So how else should we look at this gigantic annual Washington bookfest, which for five years now -- since its modest beginning in 2001 -- has been organized and sponsored by the Library of Congress and hosted by Laura Bush?

There are a multitude of ways, but we'll keep it to single digits for now.

ยท It's a defense of the printed word : Gioia is the guy who got his fellow poets that stage. He got the Library of Congress to agree by promising, in 2003, that the NEA would raise the necessary private funds. Gioia's NEA is also the agency that's been sounding loud alarms about Americans' growing reluctance -- or inability -- to read.

Last year it issued a scary report called "Reading at Risk." The report quantified reading's decline in what Gioia describes as "a society that offers an enormous number of alternatives for information and entertainment." If the decline continues, he said last week, we'll be losing something crucially important for democracy.

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