Well the National Book Festival was everything I had hoped for and more. I had SUCH A GOOD TIME.
I've always liked hearing authors talk. I like to hear about their process and what events or questions inspired their books. I just love getting a peak into that world. As an adult, I've been lucky enough to hear Tony Morrison and Salman Rushdie. And when I was a kid, Mary Downing Hahn (Wait Till Helen Comes) and Priscilla Cummings (Chadwick the Crab) visited my school, which had a profound effect on me (You mean real people write these books? And they live in my state?). Reading can sometimes feel lonely, so bringing readers and authors together helps me feel part of a shared experience.
And that's exactly how I felt yesterday at the National Book Festival in D.C. I can't even tell you how much fun it was. Let me give you a quick run down of the people I heard:
David McCullough: What a storyteller! I left this talk wanting to read everything he has written. I loved his book John Adams, and now I really want to read his one about the Wright brothers. He did an especially great job of talking about all the women that are a part of these histories and don't get the credit for the roles they played. And on that same theme, he also credited his wife extensively for helping him during his revision process. I really liked that. McCullough still writes on a manual typewriter, which is adorable, AND he talked about how important it is to read your work aloud as you're writing and editing. I must have looked like a bobblehead in the stands, I was nodding so hard in agreement with that. I caught the tail-end of Alice McDermott's talk too, and she said the exact same thing. You've got to hear the sound of the words to get them right, they're not just marks on the page. Anyway, no one writes about American history better than McCullough and I feel really lucky that I got to hear him speak.
Diana Gabaldon: So full disclosure, I've read about half of Outlander, and while it's pretty good, it just isn't my cup of tea. Despite that, I was still so excited to hear her talk and she did not disappoint. I have a lot of respect for her genre-blending. I mean, who would have thought historical fiction could be crossed with romance and science fiction! I'm sure publishers wouldn't naturally bet on that horse, so the fact that Gabaldon has been so successful at making it work is incredibly impressive to me (she's sold a massive 28 million copies of her books, on which a hit TV show has also been based), She was funny, a little naughty, and incredibly inspiring. After hearing her talk, I almost wanted to leave the festival so I could get writing. The fact that she transitioned her original career as a biology professor in academia to becoming a novelist is another thing about her story that I really admire. I mean, if she can do it, maybe I can too! Gave me hope.
Colm Toibin: Of all the talks I saw, this one was definitely the most literary. I really, really loved his novel, Brooklyn, and it was just fascinating to hear how the tiny, quiet details of his childhood in Ireland informs his work. He made a great case for making stories out of almost nothing, just the mundane, but incredibly human details of our lives. Kind of a great reminder to wake up, listen, and observe all the stories that are already taking place in your life. The hard work of putting them down on paper still remains, but they're there if you bother to notice.
Thomas Friedman: So Friedman may have been the biggest crowd-draw, but I'm actually not very familiar with his work. He's a columnist for the New York Times, and as he stated up front, he considers his job to illuminate ideas that provoke an emotional response (which sounds like high-level click bait to me, but what do I know). He gave a great, incredibly well-rehearsed presentation that was much more like a TED talk than any other speaker's (who were typically more conversational). I don't know. Friedman was kind of impressive, but it felt like he was exaggerating a lot of ideas. I didn't walk away from that talk feeling like I had learned much other than Thomas Friedman likes to make connections about globalization, climate change, Moore's law, human adaptability, and that those connections may or may not be real. He was promoting his book Thank You For Being Late, and it sounded pretty good, but also kind of suspect. I don't know, wasn't my favorite talk. Just a little too slick. Big ideas are complex and I feel like he way over-simplified everything so they would fit into his convenient unified theory.
Michael Lewis: Lewis hardly needs an introduction. If you've read or seen The Big Short, Moneyball (movie), or Liar's Poker, then you know his work. But until I saw his talk, which was actually more of an awesome conversation between him and Joel Achenbach (whom I've been reading in the Washington Post for years, so it was really cool to finally see him in the flesh), I hadn't made the connection that he had written ALL those books. Of all the talks I saw, Lewis's may have been the most downright entertaining. He made everything he said sound like the most interesting thing you've ever heard. Of all the authors yesterday, for me he was the most like David McCullough - incredibly curious people, asking all the right questions and digging to find the answers. Lewis's talk may have been my favorite of the whole day. Like McCullough's, I left wanting to read everything he had ever written.
Condoleezza Rice: I mean, CONDOLEEZZA FREAKING RICE! Look, I was never a fan of the Bush administration, but I always admired Rice, and the more I've learned about her over the years, the more impressed I get. She grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, smack in the middle of segregation and the Civil Rights movement (she knew some of the little girls who were killed in the Birmingham church bombing). And yet, she grew up empowered by her parents and herself to become a world-expert in Soviet and Eastern European foreign policy (she has a Ph.D. and was a professor at Stanford University). She speaks Russian, was part of both the George H. W. and W. Bush administrations as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State (America's top diplomat), and, if that wasn't enough, she's also an incredibly talented classical pianist. Her talk was about her new book, Democracy - basically what institutions are needed to make a successful system (independent courts, free press, etc.) and why it's thrived in some parts of the world and not in others. The moderator had her talk about the state of democracy (or lack thereof) in different countries and geopolitical situations, and holy shit, does the lady know her stuff. She's back teaching at Stanford, and if I could, I would definitely take her class. The only "bad" part about Rice's talk was that it was scheduled at almost the same time as Roxane Gay's, whose new book, Hunger, I really want to read. Hopefully I'll get to see her another time.
Ann Telnaes, Mike Lester, and Roz Chast: Finally, I closed out the fairly long day (I got there at 10 am and didn't leave until 7 pm) with the cartoonists panel. I'm a massive cartoon fan, in all forms of the medium, so this was a real treat for me. Ann Telnaes (of the Washington Post) and Mike Lester are editorial cartoonists on opposite sides of the political spectrum. I'm sure you would recognize Telnaes's work. I really enjoyed hearing her talk. She was such a strong, intelligent voice against Trump and his attempts to bully the free press (in ways that aren't unlike some of the warning signs Rice was discussing in her own talk). I just love her cartooning style, and had no idea that all these years I've been reading her work that it was a woman behind it. There aren't many female political cartoonists and she takes a lot of heat on the internet for it. Because how dare a woman speak up! I didn't love Mike Lester. Our politics don't agree, which isn't the end of the world, but beyond that, he just wasn't very coherent or nearly as interesting as Telnaes. I also hate his comic strip, Mike du Jour, but it was interesting to at least put a face to the name. The last talk I heard was with Roz Chast, whom I'm a big fan of (you can read my review of her graphic novel Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? here). For years, I didn't really appreciate her work, and then one day it just hit me how amazing it is. She's by far my favorite New Yorker cartoonist.
The only slightly annoying part was her talk was a little ruined for me by a group of incredibly impolite teenage boys I happened to be sitting next to. The room was so packed, I couldn't change seats, and for the life of me, I don't know why they even bothered to be there. They kept getting up and down from their seats, spent 99% of the talk playing games on their cell phones (while one "helpfully" described the cartoons and jokes being projected on the screens to his companions, so I could hardly hear Chast talk). And then when someone tried to sit down in a seat in the middle of the row, and politely asked the boys if he could get past them, the kid looked up from his phone and sneered, "Can you get in on the other side?" (meaning the other side of the aisle, so he wouldn't have to be bothered to scoot his knees out of the way for the all of 2 seconds it would take for the older man to get a seat). Makes you wonder what the world is coming to. I wanted to tell that kid off, but it would only have made a bigger disruption than it already was.
Anyway, despite that last bit, the National Book Festival was amazing and I can't wait until next year. I mean, in one day I heard more authors speak than I have in my entire life up to that point. If you're a word nerd like me, the Library of Congress's National Book Festival is well worth it. If I weren't local, I would definitely plan a long weekend in D.C. around it. There's plenty to do in the city and free events like this one make it even better.
Have you ever been? If so, tell me about it in the comments! Would love to hear your experiences.
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