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. (Published 9/28/2005)

"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.

* 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.

How can a book festival address this? Well, it connects readers with authors in a way that's "free, accessible and entertaining," Gioia said. It generates attention from the media, especially the electronic media. And it restores a social dimension to reading: "You go there and suddenly you say, my goodness, there's 85,000 other readers here."

It's too early to estimate this year's attendance -- but some of those readers started lining up at 9 a.m. for book-signings that wouldn't begin for hours.

* It's a nonpolitical event -- or is it? Laura Bush's participation in the festival would seem to make perfect sense. She's a former librarian, after all, who cares deeply about reading and literacy -- a politically neutral cause of the kind first ladies generally adopt. Who better to host the Friday night gala and the White House author's breakfast that kicked off the festival?

Except it has competition this year from the antiwar protest. The mingled book lovers and marchers mostly coexist peacefully, though one guy insists on shouting "books not bombs" as he walks by the readings. But the festival, while well attended, seems oddly secondary at times.

Poet Sharon Olds brought politics to the fore when she wrote a letter to Laura Bush that was recently posted on the Web site of the Nation magazine. In declining her invitation to the festival, Olds explained that she didn't want to be seen as condoning "the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush administration," which she described as a "regime of blood, wounds and fire."

Novelist Michael Chabon also declined his invitation. He said he opposes the war and considers the Bush presidency "illegitimate."

Children's book author and vice presidential spouse Lynne Cheney, meanwhile, dropped out for a totally nonpolitical reason: Her husband was having an operation to repair an aneurysm behind his knee.

* It's a television show: "Stand by to cue," the C-SPAN2 director says. "Is she ready for her cue? Five, four, three, two, one. . . ."

Half a dozen C-SPANners are squeezed into a bathroom-size control room in the trailer from which they're producing live book festival coverage. And now here's host Connie Doebele coming through bright and loud on the bank of monitors on the wall.

"We are standing outside the History and Biography tent," she begins.

Doebele is poised to interview Andrew Carroll, founder of the Legacy Project, which encourages Americans to preserve wartime correspondence. Inside the trailer, there's a problem, though: Producer Amy Roach's phone line is dead.

A flurry of activity. Another line is patched in.

"Are you set to go to the rally at a moment's notice?" Roach asks someone on the other end. Like many others on the Mall, she's keeping one eye on the festival and another on the peace march.

C-SPAN2 is filming mainly History and Biography authors, as befits the cable network's focus on government and public affairs. The festival is free fodder for its all-books-all-the-time weekend programming.

But that's not the only reason the festival is like a giant TV show.

There are the folks dressed up as PBS characters, with whom small children line up to have their pictures taken. (Cookie Monster has the longest line.) There are the many authors -- Myrka Dellanos, for example, of Univision Network's "En Exclusiva con Myrka Dellanos" -- who double as television personalities.

What's more: The whole format of the festival, as Gioia has pointed out, is "not unlike the format of talk television. It's personality-focused. It's public-conversation-focused."

* It's a potential porta-potty disaster: Putting on the festival is a logistical challenge of no small significance. Last Thursday afternoon, a couple of jumbo-size golf carts filled with staffers and consultants, among them Library of Congress chief of staff Jo Ann Jenkins, motored around the site looking for glitches.

They didn't find many, except for the annoying signs on the food vendors' tents, which appeared to be left over from last year and hence were the wrong color.

Here were the book sale pavilions, expanded this year with the hope of offering quicker checkout. Here was where festivalgoers could make donations to help send books to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.

The organizers worried about the demonstration. They worried about the weather, too. But they're good at the basics by now. They've never gotten to this stage of the preparations, said Jill Brett, the library's director of communications, and found themselves saying: "Ohhh, we forgot the Sanijohns."

Heads swiveled. Startled voices asked: "Where are they?"

"They're coming!" Jenkins said.

* It's a marketing opportunity: Yes, it's the National Book Festival -- but you surely don't think that means the nation paid for it, do you? There's a reason all those free seat cushions and bottles of water have the Target logo on them -- the company is the festival's major supporter -- and that kids are posing for pictures with a walking, star-shaped advertisement for AT&T.

According to Laysha Ward, Target vice president for community relations, her company's donations highlight early childhood reading in particular. "We are a major employer," Ward said, so growing an educated workforce is a big part of the idea.

The Washington Post is also a festival sponsor. It donated free advertising, and the staff of the Book World section helped out in a number of ways. After all, a newspaper without readers is a frightening thing.

* It's a community of writers and readers: This is what it's all about, in the end: a guy who gets into a line that's already 130 yards long. He's smoking a cigar, but he'll have finished it long before he can get McCullough to sign his copy of "1776." He's Clay Steward from Purcellville, Va., and he says he's read everything McCullough has written. Same with historian Joseph Ellis, whom he's hoping to get to see as well.

But isn't reading these guys enough? What is it about a few seconds of face-to-face contact that makes him brave these incredible lines?

"It makes them real," Steward says. "It takes them out of the stacks up at the Library of Congress and makes them a person, a human being."

James Mosberg is down from Baltimore on a similar mission. He and a friend are in line for Jonathan Safran Foer, whose novel "Everything Is Illuminated" he read in college.

Allison Levin of Arlington is nearing the head of an almost McCullough-length line -- for Diana Gabaldon, whose fiction she loves but cannot categorize. "Historical adventure slash romance slash time travel?" she ventures.

Back at the Poetry Pavilion, the Whitman crowd has thinned out some. Next up is Alice Fulton, who says she had to think hard before accepting her festival invitation.

She praises the protesters for speaking out.

She reads an antiwar poem called "Our Calling" that contains the lines: "It's our conspiracy to see / Iraqi Freedom / the world our way / the code name for the U.S. / empire by which we pledge /invasion."

But she also makes a point of thanking Laura Bush "for celebrating books today." It's important not to turn each other into monsters, the poet says.

A C-SPAN crew interviews author Tom Wolfe, wearing his trademark white suit, at the National Book Festival on the Mall.At the National Book Festival yesterday, Irene Padilla, right, grabs a seat cushion, provided by festival sponsor Target, as Joan Van Blake adds to the stack.