Volunteer Nathan ventures out to the National Book Festival and the Baltimore Book Festival.
Book lovers in the D.C./Baltimore area have it made. On September 22-23, the National Book Festival was held on the National Mall in D.C. The Baltimore Book Festival was held the next weekend, September 28-30, on Mount Vernon Place in Baltimore. I joined thousands of readers on these sunny weekends to experience two distinctly different festivals. In D.C., the focus was on hearing authors speak. In Baltimore, the focus was on giving local book culture a platform for interacting with the public.
The National Book Festival is huge. With 125 authors, poets, illustrators and entertainers in seven pavilions, I couldn’t see every single thing offered. I snagged a schedule and map to hone in on my personal highlights and shuffled through the crowd. The sprawling white tents occupied the mall like giant larvae hatching thousands of human insects. Under the tents, the crowds packed foldout chairs and stood in tight bundles.
Jeffery Eugenides was a favorite of mine from Saturday. He opened with some lighthearted comments and even made jokes about Mitt Romney being a fiction writer, which got a lot of laughs. He warmed the crowd by saying “Politics and Prose is one of the best bookstores in the world.” The tent applauded his nod to a local gem. He read an excerpt from his latest novel The Marriage Plot, recently released in paperback. I have not read the book, but several phrases and character observations stood out that made me think it might be worth the time. Eugenides continued cracking jokes when opportunities arose. He read the word “boner” and paused to ask the sign language interpreter to repeat the sign. The tent erupted in laughter and applause.
After his reading, he took questions from the audience. He offered insightful and thoughtful answers. In fact, this was a trend during the Q & A portion for most authors. They made banal questions interesting by the quality of their answers.
On Saturday, T. C. Boyle also spoke. He did not take questions or lecture the audience. Instead, he read an entire short story, “The Lie.” Boyle’s performance mesmerized and entertained. The story is about a twenty-something new father who calls out of work ostensibly sick. The lie snowballs from there and leads him to perpetual fibs that spiral out of control. Boyle fused comedic hyperbole with moral concerns in a spellbinding theatrical reading.
In the children’s tent, young readers were also given Q & A time with their favorite authors. One young reader used her question time to simply tell the author, Anna Dewdney, that she enjoyed her Llama Llama series and to thank her for writing. The children’s unpretentious appreciation and honest, heartwarming enthusiasm reminded me why book festivals are worthwhile, and those sentiments seemed to spread through the adults to add a meaningful dimension to the festival. Bravo, kiddos.
The Baltimore Book Festival offered an overwhelming variety of local flare. The author pavilions lacked the Pulitzer Prizes that the National Book festival flaunted, but the literary superstars were not missed among the myriad booths of publishers, journals, booksellers, presses, food vendors, street theater, workshops, readings, panel discussions, live music and children’s activities. Baltimore’s gathering focused much more on local talent. I wasn’t just in an audience for authors; I was in an audience of authors. Aspiring locals could benefit from talking directly to publishers and writers, getting tips and feedback and sharing in the lit love.
I stumbled across The Ivy Bookshop’s table and talked with the owner. He described his store with flattering adjectives and I was able to visit the cozy and quaint bookstore, located on Falls Road, a few days later.
I spoke with several publishers about what they look for in manuscripts and what it’s like working in the book trade. I browsed sales from several booksellers (a nice contrast with the D.C. festival’s single seller and lack of variety), and conversed with fellow readers. The Radical Bookfair Pavilion was my favorite tent of the festival. There I found independent and DIY publishers showcasing books, comics and zines.
All in all, both festivals were well worth the trip. Each suffered overcrowding and bleak atmosphere (the giant white tents). The National Book Festival was best suited for families with children and true fans of the featured authors. The Baltimore Book Festival was better for aspiring writers, people interested in local book culture and families with children.