Book festival brings a ‘weird, wonderful energy’ to Mall

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Christopher Buckley is one of the dozen authors who will sign books and chat with visitors at the Library of Congress‘ National Book Festival this weekend on the Mall. But a reporter’s question almost has him thinking about canceling.

“What? They let ‘conservatives’ come to this shindig? Someone was obviously asleep at the switch. I’m appalled,” he said.

He’s joking, of course. Mr. Buckley is one of the country’s best satirists; his 1994 novel “Thank You for Smoking” was made into the 2005 hit film. But in a city regularly divided by partisan squabbles, it’s refreshing to take a look at the list of authors slated to appear this weekend — everyone from Booker Prize-winning novelist and Canadian political agitator Margaret Atwood to conservative biographer of Pope John Paul II George Weigel — and find conservatives and liberals alike coming together to celebrate the written word.

The National Book Festival, now in its 13th year, was started by then-first lady Laura Bush, a national version of a program she had begun in Texas.

Mr. Buckley, for one, is looking forward to the weekend’s events.

“I’ve done the NBF three times now (I think), and it’s really a blast, sort of a cross between a state fair and a Walter Isaacson Aspen Ideas festival, only without the aspens and bears,” he said. “There’s just something about speaking in a big tent, with people wandering in and out, that gives it a sort of weird, wonderful energy. I could do without them throwing clods of earth at me and shouting, ‘Get off the stage! Give us Evan Thomas!’ But otherwise I really do enjoy it.”

George Weigel, on the other hand, is making his first appearance at the National Book Festival, where he will talk about his latest tome, “Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.”

“Charity requires that we think that the festival organizers recognize that ‘conservative’ authors are an important part of the American public conversation and that book festivals that cater only to one band of opinion aren’t going to be very interesting or compelling. As it happens, I’ve been asked to participate in the NBF several times, and this just happens to be the first time that the schedule has worked out,” he said.

He does have one scheduling quibble. “I’m just sorry that Linda Ronstadt is going to appear on Saturday, as I’ve always wanted to ask her what became of the Stone Poneys,” he said. “It’s a generational thing.”

Mark Helprin, whose novels, including “Winter’s Tale” (now being made into a movie) and “A Soldier of the Great War,” have garnered him many awards, said festivals like the ones taking place in Washington this month have become essential to authors and publishers. He rarely accepted invitations to appear at festivals, though; publishers preferred to send him to bookstores.

“First it was to sell the book. Then it changed, and it was to keep the independent bookstores alive, to sell your book and other books,” he said. “Because the bookstores essentially have their tongues hanging out, that model doesn’t really work.”

With bricks-and-mortar bookstores possibly dying and e-books on the rise, bigger events like these might soon be one of the few ways to reach readers.

As if in emphasis of the point, the NBF is not the only event collecting best-selling novelists and deep thinkers together in the area this month. The 15th annual Fall for the Book festival centered at George Mason University in Fairfax County takes place Sept. 22 to 27 and includes writers Deanna Raybourn, Laurin Wittig and Scott W. Berg.

Thomas Mallon, a historical novelist who lives in Washington, has appeared at the Library of Congress‘ event in the past, but this year can be found at Fall for the Book. He believes the National Book Festival is aptly named.

“Things can be done on a big scale, because of the federal nature of this city,” he said. “There’s more of a national audience here. The bulk of people are Washington people. But given that it’s in September, you’re still getting the tail end of the summer tourists who are on the Mall and come to Washington for other things.”

Washington has proven inspirational to many writers, of course, Mr. Mallon included. His last novel was titled “Watergate,” and he’s now working on a novel about the late years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Some fans meeting him and other writers over the next week might one day put their own perspective on the city into prose. There will be plenty of room for them — one famous fictionalizer of Washington is getting out of the business, it seems.

“Today, the best satire seems to be either on the Onion or the op-ed page of The New York Times, under the byline ‘Putin.’ I think, in so many words, that we live in a post-satirical time. Time, therefore, to move on,” Mr. Buckley revealed. “I’m retiring from satire. Don’t laugh, but my next book is about Western civilization. I asked you not to laugh. Why are you laughing? All right. This interview is concluded, thank you.”

WHAT: Library of Congress National Book Festival

WHERE: Between Ninth and 14th streets on the Mall

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21 and from noon to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday Sept. 22, rain or shine

WEB: loc.gov/bookfest

PHONE: 888/714-4696

 

WHAT: Fall for the Book

WHERE: George Mason University and other locations throughout Northern Virginia, the District and Maryland

WHEN: Sept. 22 to 27

WEB: fallforthebook.org

PHONE: 703/993-3986

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