My first thought when I learned that this year’s National Book Festival was moving from the Mall to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was of the Morlocks — those pale underground creatures from “The Time Machine,” H.G. Wells’s take on our distant, bifurcated future. In his vision of the year 802,701, one half of humanity, the Morlocks, dwells in dark caverns beneath the earth, tending to “the machines” and feeding off the other half, the beautiful and stupid Eloi, who graze and gambol in the garden above.
I’ll admit the thought was an overreaction, born, no doubt, of the contrast between my recollections of sunny National Book Festivals of the past and the various occasions I have found myself in the convention center’s windowless rooms, where the air does, indeed, throb with the sound of the building’s invisible machinery.
But a tendency to make metaphorical connections is an occupational hazard for those of us who write. And while the real rationale for this move seems anything but ominous — an attempt to preserve the grass on the Mall, the nation’s “front lawn” — it’s difficult for us creative types to avoid toying with some apocalyptic notions of what the change represents.
I was there, after all, at the first National Book Festival, held on the East Lawn of the Capitol. The date was Saturday, Sept. 8, 2001, three days before the dawning of the post-9/11 era. At the start of the day, first lady Laura Bush, co-founder of the festival with Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, invited all the participating authors to breakfast at the White House. I brought my mother along, and, as is required of any visitor to the White House, had provided her birth date and Social Security number well in advance.
But my mother then discovered, while applying for her first passport, that her real birthday was two days before the day she’d always claimed, the date I had given. This caused some consternation at the gate on the morning of the breakfast. As the other authors streamed in, we were asked to step aside. A member of the Secret Service, clipboard in hand, frowned at us, saying there was a discrepancy in her information. Nervously, my mother began to explain how her own mother died shortly after she was born, and how her father, with a new baby and a sick wife and two more little daughters to care for — and here her eyes filled with tears — apparently didn’t get around to registering her birth for two days, and somehow . . .
The agent, smiling, held up his hand, offered his condolences, and let us in.
Such was national security in those last days of our age of innocence.
At the festival on that sunny September afternoon, there were tents and balloons and various Sesame Street characters walking through the crowds, but no talk of unattended backpacks or “see something say something.” Novelist Gail Tsukiyama and I shared a laugh over how thrilled we were to read from our work with the Capitol as a backdrop. We confessed, without irony, to being absolutely overcome with love and awe for our magnificent country, our glorious city, our unfettered freedom to read and to write. We praised the president neither of us had voted for — how bad could he be, we said, if he married a woman who so loves books?
In subsequent years, I’ve visited the National Book Festival as both writer and reader. My favorite recollections are of the days I came into town to show a visitor the sights, or to walk the dog, or to pick up my daughter from her art class at the Corcoran — and remembered that the festival was happening only when I wandered upon it, the balloons and the tents and the big-headed characters from children’s lit. On those days, I was reminded that for those of us who live in the Washington suburbs, the Mall is not so much the nation’s front lawn as our own back yard. Even as an inadvertent participant, walking a big white dog, I found myself welcoming the readers, thanking the writers, gazing proudly at the piles of books spread out like a feast of my own devising.
The notion that such serendipitous encounters are over now that the festival is heading indoors seems all of a piece with other changes that have taken place not only in the country but in my profession since 2001. Consider those piles of books, for instance — books made of paper and thread, not glassy-eyed “downloads.” Consider the very idea of a spontaneous encounter, not just with the festival itself — you will now have to plan to attend, get in line at the door — but with books and authors in general; the kinds of encounters that used to occur in libraries and bookstores, where the possibility of discovering a new author or an older work was not limited to a computer-generated list of what “other people” also bought.
The good news about this year’s festival is that our own local gem of a bookstore, Politics & Prose, will be selling books in the convention center, but that does not keep us imaginative, apocalyptic types from devising another Wellsian metaphor out of the changes that have taken place in publishing over the past 13 years: While we writers gambol in the perpetual sunlight of our art, a Morlock-type creature (but bigger than a Morlock, say an amazon-size Morlock) lurks underground, running the machines, feeding on our innocence and our stupidity.
I won’t even bother to bemoan the loss of the festival’s most egalitarian element, common to visiting readers and coddled celebrity authors alike: the weather. We will all be out of it this year, inside the cool confines of the convention center. And if this, too, seems like a metaphor for our own post-9/11 bifurcated society, I confess to feeling some satisfaction that it will be the writers and the readers, the folks who love books, who will find relief from the rain or the heat this time around. Let the nonreaders feel left out for a change.
Which leads me to another, more comforting vision for the new venue. There are, after all, other metaphorical spins to place on the retreat to an interior space: Words like “shelter” and “hearth” come to mind. One can think of the early Christian catacombs, the monasteries in the Dark Ages, of any number of underground movements that have blossomed into freedom and peace.
Or one can devise a metaphor out of the very interior activity that is reading itself: that silent communication of one mind with another — writer’s mind and reader’s mind. Those of us who know the transporting wonder of a reading life know that it little matters where we are when we talk about books or meet authors or bemoan the state of publishing because when we read, we are always inside, sheltered in that interior room, that clean, well-lighted, timeless place that is the written word. Where, to borrow from “The Time Machine,” “gratitude and a mutual tenderness still live on in the heart of man.”
A metaphor for this year’s National Book Festival that I’m happy to consider.
Alice McDermott will be at the Fiction & Mystery room 5:20-6 p.m. and at the Great Books to Great Movies presentation, 8-9:30 p.m.