Philanthropist David Rubenstein donates $5 million to National Book Festival

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; 12:55 PM

In another gesture of civic philanthropy, financier David M. Rubenstein has given the Library of Congress $5 million to support the National Book Festival, the library announced Thursday.

The gift was generated, in part, by conversations Rubenstein and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington had about their childhoods. "We were discussing the parallels in our own lives with parents who didn't have higher education but were tremendously devoted to books," said Billington. Rubenstein, co-founder of the Washington-based private equity firm the Carlyle Group, was a Saturday regular at his local Baltimore library. "The limit was 12 books and I would put them in my book bag, and then return the next week for more," Rubenstein said. Now international plane trips allow Rubenstein to read six to eight books a week, he said.

The joy of reading is a pleasure Rubenstein wants to share through the Book Festival, which opens for its 10th year Sept. 25. "This is a down payment on an endowment to make sure the National Book Festival will be permanent," said Rubenstein. The donation was also prompted by other factors, including tackling adult literacy and giving people a chance to interact with their favorite writers.

The gift, Billington said, "has created the presumption of permanence. This is a permanent Washington commitment and celebration." The annual cost of a major book fair is $2.5 million, he said, and the Library of Congress has struggled to meet that goal.

Though many cities hold popular book fairs, the Library of Congress-sponsored event has many unique features, beginning with the endorsement of the White House. Laura Bush, a former librarian and author, pushed the library to start the effort. Last year President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama chaired the event. The festival fills the Mall with tents and reading circles, as about 70 authors, poets and illustrators discuss their work. Last year included Judy Blume, Ken Burns, Annette Gordon-Reed, Junot Diaz, John Grisham, David Baldacci and Walter Mosley.

In 2009, the one-day affair attracted 130,000 people in the rain.

"Taking the lead in promoting book festivals is a good thing for Washington," Rubenstein said. Earlier this week, he became chairman of the Kennedy Center board, and he is a regent of the Smithsonian Institution and a member of the Library's Madison Council. He has lent priceless historical documents to the National Archives, the White House and the State Department.

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