The Library of Congress hosted its 16th annual National Book Festival in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Sept. 24. The free, public, one-day event boasted book signings by 120 authors spanning across genres, poetry slams, panel discussions and an exposition floor with dozens of booths devoted to family-friendly activities and exhibitions.
Founded by former librarian and First Lady Laura Bush and then-Librarian of Congress James Billington in 2001, the National Book Festival strives to promote literacy as one of the pre-eminent literary festivals in the nation.
Two-time Newbery Award-winning writer Lois Lowry, author of “The Giver” and “Number the Stars,” attested to the festival’s capacity for promoting reading in an increasingly digitized world.
“The festival reminds us, I think, that reading is not an obsolete act, but an ongoingly vital one,” Lowry wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The fact that so many thousands of people came out on a beautiful day to celebrate books—and authors, and reading—that says a lot.”
Best-selling author Geraldine Brooks, who received the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her historical fiction novel “March,” said the event’s vitality was a reassuring sign in a country where illiteracy and apathy remain a pervasive, if underestimated, problem.
“There have been some very compelling presentations about how desperate our predicament is with the illiterate and the aliterate, which are people who can read but don’t read. And if you don’t have reading skills in this day, you will just have such a stunted life,” Brooks said. “It needs to have more of a spotlight on it, so I’m glad that the festival’s really focused on that.”
Library of Congress intern Celine Calpo (COL ’19) skipped Homecoming on campus to volunteer at one of the children’s booths. Calpo currently works at the Young Readers Center, a Library of Congress program designed specifically to promote literacy among children and youth.
“We were mostly entertaining teachers, and we had a huge jar full of book recommendations that were either banned or had some sort of diversity aspect to them; we tried to emphasize nontraditional novels, and a lot of people responded fairly well,” Calpo said. “A lot of the teachers ended up asking for copies of posters that we had of book rankings and recommendations.”
The Library of Congress estimated that around 30,000 people attended the event. Among the attendees were the writers Stephen King, Salman Rushdie and television producer and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes.
Returning festival attendees including Michigan native Heather Mlsna noted some differences from previous years. Mlsna, a self-identified participant in the literary community, flew to Washington, D.C., with her daughter Piper to attend the festival.
“We’ve noticed there seems to be an upgrade in security between last year and this year, and that’s translated to be somewhat more organizational and always a little bit more limiting when there’s something like that,” Mlsna said. “But it’s completely understandable given all of the different challenges we’re facing as a nation right now.”
Her daughter, Piper Mlsna, praised the festival’s unifying of book worms from all over the country.
“I think it’s striving to just have a literary community, a national literary community, and bring together a lot of the best authors that are contemporary authors, and it does a really good job of getting a broad range of genres and people and perspectives,” Piper Mlsna said. “And people that enjoy that kind of medium, the literary medium, all come together and even fly in from different states. I think it does a great job of bringing people who love literature and bringing them together.”
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