While the publishing industry frets about the state of literature, readers keep surging to book festivals in Los Angeles, Miami, New York and dozens of other cities. These people have no time for despair — the poetry slam starts in 20 minutes, and it’s already standing room only in the Civil War pavilion. Clutching their book-themed totes, they sit in dank conference rooms listening to fantasy writers in sequined capes. They wait in winding lines to tell a doctor that her cancer memoir got them through a dark year.
Don’t tell these folks that books are dead.
Even in battle-fatigued Washington, far more than 100,000 people are expected to attend the Library of Congress National Book Festival on Saturday.
Under the leadership of first lady Laura Bush, the National Book Festival was born just three days before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It returned the next fall and then again and again, growing larger and more popular each time.
But the awesome success of the National Book Festival and book festivals in general isn’t as surprising as the fact that they exist at all. These clamoring crowds of bookworms seem incongruous with the objects of their affection. After all, we enjoy plays, movies, concerts and dances — even paintings — in the close company of others, but books insist upon solitude. No other art demands so much time apart, alone, in silence. Coming upon someone with a book unawares, we know instinctively that something intimate is transpiring: Do Not Disturb.
What a wonder, then, that these book lovers should rise from their comfy chairs, abandon their nooks and swarm together in celebration — like cicadas emerging from the ground to meet their literary mates.
In fact, though, our modern craze for book festivals descends from much older gatherings. An illuminating new work of history called “The Social Life of Books,” by Abigail Williams, describes the public’s obsession with reading aloud — and together — in 18th-century England. Before the Civil War, millions of Americans came to hear authors traveling on the lyceum circuit. And in the 1870s, the Chautauqua movement of western New York began spreading across the country, bringing readings and lectures to people who had little access to formal education.
Now, those of us who live for books worry about the decline of literacy, the ascension of emoji, the supremacy of video. Even the most discouraged cultural observer, though, would be heartened by the National Book Festival. The size of the crowd is exceeded only by the volume of its enthusiasm. From children clamoring to hug Captain Underpants to Capitol Hill Brahmins swooning over David McCullough, this is that rare moment when a literary event trounces the Super Bowl.
But what a remarkable moment for these authors to be thrust into the modern-day spectator sport of book celebration.
Some of them, like former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, are familiar faces, well known for accomplishments aside from their books. A few, like Diana Gabaldon, author of the best-selling Outlander series, have been propelled to celebrity status by television adaptations of their work. Many of them understand that their public persona is part of their books’ appeal. Descendants of that brilliant marketer Charles Dickens, they relish the attention, the selfies, the chance to meet their fans and sign copies of their books.
But some authors, even a few very popular ones, can breathe only in front of their desks. Solitude is not a drawback of their craft; it’s what appeals to them about writing. They find book tours exhausting, distracting, vaguely humiliating. They think plugging their work on Twitter and Facebook is a modern abomination. They engage in promotion erratically and only after a firm talking to by their publicists. Spotting these bashful authors at a book festival, you can see the strain in their smiles, a mixture of humble gratitude and recoiling embarrassment.
“Leave me alone,” their eyes say. “I want to write.”
That makes seeing them at an event such as Saturday’s all the more thrilling — that they’re willing to come, to greet us, to see who’s reading their books despite their shyness. Because we can’t leave our most beloved writers alone. We crave the contact, the chance to commune with these magicians who spin whole lives from mere words. “I love your book!” we gush, instantly frustrated by how pat that sounds, how inadequate to convey the depth of our ardor, the complexity of our feelings. How can we make Elizabeth Strout understand that we appreciate her novels more than anyone else in this crowd of 2,000 fans?
It’s not just that we want our favorite authors to know we heard them. We want them to realize that they heard us, that their books explained us to ourselves in ways that feel revelatory.
And so we gather, by the thousands, rushing for seats at their readings, staring up adoringly at the jumbotrons, waiting patiently for our 60 seconds at the signing table.
“Your book inspired me to become a teacher.”
“Your book saved my marriage.”
“Your book changed my life.”
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
The Washington Post is a charter sponsor of the National Book Festival. This year’s festival will be held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Saturday, Sept. 2, from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.