Reporting from Washington—Despite a midday deluge, book lovers turned out in record numbers for the ninth annual National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
The gray morning couldn't dissuade 130,000 people from attending readings and signings on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. Author appearances took place under large white tents -- big enough to seat hundreds -- that filled to overflowing once the rain started in earnest around 2 p.m.
Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," stood in a muddy field after his appearance, chatting in English and Spanish with a scrum of persistent, umbrella-carrying fans. "I'll stay out here as long as these people are staying," he said. "I wanted to meet people who've read my book and are, in general, book lovers. For me, it's an honor to be here with them."
The appreciation went both ways. Elizabeth Caturano, 10, hoped to tell Judy Blume how much she liked her books, especially "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret."
Chuck Mullins and Ron Griswold, both 61, arrived three hours early to get a prime place in John Grisham's signing line. "We're readers and collectors," said Griswold, who had a first edition of "The Firm" in hand. Hundreds of other Grisham readers queued up behind him.
At that moment, Grisham was a few hundred yards away, speaking to 800 festival attendees. His appearance -- to accept the first National Book Festival Creative Achievement Award -- kicked off the festivities.
Like many similar events across the country, the festival includes areas for children and teens, mystery and poetry, fiction, biography and history. "Every tent is packed," observed novelist Colson Whitehead. "A lot of people are reading books."
In a town where politics is common currency, history is preeminent. When Annette Gordon-Reed discussed her book "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family," all 842 seats in the history tent -- the festival's largest -- were full.
That audience included Clara Bryant, 66, of Maryland, who attended the festival for the first time with her friend Rose Curry, 70, of New York. Gordon-Reed's talk, Curry said enthusiastically, "enticed me to go and read her book."
"The Hemingses of Monticello" won the 2008 National Book Award and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in history. It focuses on the family of Sally Hemings, whose relationship with Thomas Jefferson was the focus of Gordon-Reed's first book. That the Hemingses were kept as slaves by Jefferson even as he wrote about liberty and equality in the Declaration of Independence is one of the grand, sad ironies of American history.
Yet the Hemings family, Gordon-Reed said, also presents "a story of endurance, the story of many African American families." Her next book will follow the family deeper into the 19th century, to explore "the meaning of blackness and whiteness in that time period."
The National Book Festival was founded by then-First Lady Laura Bush in 2001. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were honorary chairs of the festival, which is organized by the Library of Congress.
Unlike in previous years, though, there was no White House event for participating authors. Perhaps that's because, even though there is a new administration in Washington, George W. Bush-era policies still weigh heavi- ly on the minds of some authors.
The last time John Irving attended the festival, in 2005, protests against the Iraq war were in full swing. "I remember being on the mall," he said, "and you could hear the speeches and the protests and yells and shouts."
Irving had brought his son, then in the eighth grade, to the official author breakfast. "I thought he'd get to meet the first lady, and he'd get to see the White House -- any kid would be knocked out by that," he said.
When Mrs. Bush asked what Irving's son would be doing while his father was signing books, the boy said, "My mom and I are marching in the protest march against the war," the author recounted. Irving laughed. "Mrs. Bush, to her credit, said, 'Oh, that's very nice.' "
This year, the mall was quiet. Joggers rounded the perimeter early on, kicking up dust from pebbled walkways. Expectant readers and baffled tourists emerged from the Metro rapid transit system directly into the festival hubbub.
As storm clouds rolled in and the wind blew, people hunched their shoulders against the weather and wiped grit from their eyes.
When the rain came, people crowded into tents for shelter; the only thing that mattered was staying dry.
Everyone pressed in close to make room for those on the margins: one nation, indivisible -- at least for an afternoon.