The National Book Festival on Saturday was the largest in the event’s 18-year history, according to estimates from several Library of Congress officials.
The festival, sponsored by the Library of Congress since 2001, drew at least 200,000 readers to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown D.C. They listened to talks and interviews with more than 100 authors, including Amy Tan, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Dave Eggers, Meg Wolitzer and Roxane Gay.
Packed rooms were the order of the day for almost all the presentations.
Marie Arana, the literary director of the National Book Festival, said, “Authors new to the festival were agog at the sizes of their audiences — positively gobsmacked. We probably made heads grow in the process, but we love making authors feel like rock stars. We’re going to have to learn how to manage larger crowds, that’s for certain. We are outgrowing many of the halls!”
So many people wanted to hear U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor that the vast hall quickly filled to capacity, and 3,000 people had to be turned away. Inside the main stage ballroom, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden interviewed Sotomayor, who launched her new children’s book, “Turning Pages: My Life Story.” During the Q&A part of her presentation, Sotomayor left the stage and walked into the audience — many of them children. “The strength of our country is in our teachers,” the justice said.
Annie Proulx accepted the 2018 Prize for American Fiction, an annual award from the Library of Congress that honors an “American writer whose body of work is distinguished for its mastery of the art, originality and imagination.” Proulx, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose most recent novel is “Barkskins,” said, “I don’t think of myself as a writer. What I am is a reader.” She urged people to read to children as early and often as possible.
Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright came to speak at the festival directly from Sen. John McCain’s funeral at Washington National Cathedral. She talked about her recent book, “Fascism: A Warning.”
A record number of authors launched their books at the festival, including U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, who read selections from her new “American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time,” and Deborah Harkness, who gave away a copy of her forthcoming novel, “Time’s Convert,” to a lucky fan who knew where one of her famous vampire characters was born.
Politics and Prose, the official bookseller of the festival, sold more than 17,000 books, a record, according to P&P co-owner Bradley Graham. “The crowds were definitely bigger than any we’ve seen since the festival moved to the convention center in 2014,” he said. P&P brought a staff of more than 70 people to run its pop-up store.
Two much-anticipated authors, Isabel Allende and Jeffrey Eugenides, did not appear at the festival. Allende was called away by a family emergency. According to Eugenides, he was thwarted by a scheduling mix-up.
At a gala for festival workers, authors and donors Friday night, several writers gave brief speeches about the importance of books to their lives and the lives of children. Jacqueline Woodson, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, said, “The first thing I want to say is give literacy all your money!”
The Library of Congress announced the winners of 2018 Literacy Awards, which are funded by David M. Rubenstein, who is also a co-founder of the book festival:
• Reading Is Fundamental of Washington, D.C., won the $150,000 David M. Rubenstein Prize. RIF is a nonprofit literacy organization that has distributed more than 400 million books since it was founded in 1966.
• East Side Community School, New York City, won the $50,000 American Prize. East Side created a reading program that dramatically increased students’ literacy skills.
• Instituto Pedagógico para Problemas del Lenguaje, Mexico City, won the $50,000 International Prize. IPPLIAP is a nonprofit organization that supports literacy among deaf children and children with language and learning disabilities.
The annual book festival moved from the Mall to the convention center in 2014. Next year’s festival will be held Aug. 31 at the convention center.
The Washington Post is a charter sponsor of the National Book Festival.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.