Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Love story: Book festivals bring readers, writers together -- Sept. 15, 2016 column


We think of reading as a solitary pastime, but it’s often social and cultural as well.

Who wants to talk about a great book? Just about everybody, as the explosion of book clubs in recent years attests.

Bring writers into the conversation, and you have a book fair. Add more readers and writers, and it’s a book festival.

About 75 book fairs and festivals are now held in 43 states. More than 120 authors and illustrators and upwards of 100,000 people are expected to throng the 15th annual National Book Festival on Sept. 24 in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the nation’s capital.

Stephen King, whose books have sold an amazing 350 million copies worldwide, is the festival’s marquee draw. If you didn’t snag a free ticket for his sold-out appearance, you can still visit with big names.

No tickets are required for the other speakers, who, unlike King, will sign their books. Among them: filmmaker Ken Burns, journalist Bob Woodward and authors from at least seven foreign countries.

The celebration surrounding the opening of the Museum of African American History and Culture the same day likely will extend to the festival, where the roster includes basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, television producer Shonda Rhimes and novelist Colson Whitehead.

In addition, many readers may see Carla Hayden, the new Librarian of Congress for the first time. Hayden, the first African American and the first woman in the position, was sworn in Wednesday.

Free and with programs for all ages, the national festival is the legacy of first lady Laura Bush, a former librarian with the lifelong mission of inspiring people to read.  

In November, the Texas Book Festival, which Bush started when she was first lady of Texas, will mark its 20th anniversary. She and the Library of Congress launched the national festival in 2001, just three days before the horrors of 9/11.

Bush didn’t invent book fairs, of course, but she did popularize them for modern readers.

Book fairs got their first 20th century boost in 1919, when a Chicago department store held Book Week. One hundred thousand customers poured into the store to shake hands with 14 authors and buy books from 60 publishers, Bernadine Clark wrote in “Fanfare for Words,” a 1991 history of book fairs published by the Library of Congress.

The Miami Book Fair started in 1984 and the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in 1989. The Tennessee festival takes place Oct. 14 through 16.

In Virginia, the Fall for the Book festival, sponsored by George Mason University, runs Sept. 25 to 30, and the Virginia Festival of the Book is next set for March in Charlottesville. The 2017 Alabama Book Festival will be held in April in Montgomery.

Festivals are quick-hit gatherings for readers and writers, but the nation’s first, permanent celebration of American writers past and present is in the works. The American Writers Museum is under construction on the second floor of an office tower in downtown Chicago and plans to open in March.

The idea for the museum came from Ireland, where the Dublin Writers Museum honors great Irish writers. In this country, the writers museum will fill a void, says Jim Leach, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“We collect in central points the artifacts of civilization and honor politicians and soldiers, athletes, artists, inventors and entrepreneurs, but we neglect our writers,” Leach said in a statement on the museum’s website.

It probably won’t surprise anyone that Laura Bush is among those supporting the writers museum.

Like the Texas and national book festivals and literary events around the country, the new museum will “celebrate writers of every era, every genre and every race,” she says in a video, and “inspire everyone to fall in love with reading and writing.”

I hope she’s right.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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