The National Book Festival // Favorite Things

I was lucky enough to spend a few hours at the National Book Festival on the National Mall yesterday. Started by  then First Lady Laura Bush ten years ago, it is perhaps my favorite local event of the year.  Over the past six years, I have been privileged to hear favorite authors speak, and listen to some who I knew nothing about who have since become favorite authors. My husband took the kids to the nearby Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, which was celebrating the museum’s 100th anniversary, while I listened to authors. If you know anything about my husband and his love of reading, you will realize how magnanimous this was. As my four year old said that morning, “Dad, I think mom needs some alone time.”  I think they had a pretty good time as the museum, a favorite of ours, was showcasing some of pretty awesome artifacts. My son, always the dinosaur enthusiast, was able to hold a bona fide Tyrannosaurus Rex tooth. It doesn’t get much better than that at our house.

I had the chance to listen to a few intriguing authors, among them Nell Irvin Painter, the Princeton historian, Isabel Allende, the recipient of this years honorary award, Elizabeth Kostova, whose description of her writing process for The Historian made me want to pick up the tome, and Julia Glass. Ms. Glass introduced her newest main character, Percy Darling, a cantankerous old man; her presentation put The Widower’s Tale on my must read list. 

I appreciate the book festival for a number of reasons–the key one is to remind me how much I enjoy reading.  I tend to have a rather obsessive personality, perhaps as evidenced by how much sewing I have been doing recently. When I read, I am a bulimic reader of sorts–I literally need a three hour (or more) block of time to just sit down and read a book. I can’t string it out. I am a quick reader, which helps, but I am very much an all or nothing kind of girl. I don’t find a lot of three to five hour uninterrupted chunks of time in my life these days, or if I do, I tend to do other things (riding my bike and sewing come to mind.)

Each year, the festival reminds me how much I like reading (and writing). It makes me (and most of the other 150,000 in attendance) want to be a writer.  It helps me remember that I need to carve out time for both of these activities in my life–it is part of who I am.  As I was reminded yesterday, reading lets me take a glimpse at another time, another place, another way of life. It reminds me to widen my own often myopic view of the world. And it is simply a fun and often relaxing thing to do. A few favorite books in the past few years include: Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif, Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Yesterday, Julia Glass quoted from a commencement speech given at a Berkeley high school recently by Ms. Elizabeth Mulvihill. I am going to try to track down the speech, but for now, here is the (very rough) paraphrase.

Some of you will become doctors who work with doctors without borders; some of you will become teachers; some of you will raise children; some of you will become lawyers and help those who are less fortunate… each of you will need to find a way to position yourself between the vulnerability and chaos that exists in this world… you will need to cultivate compassion.  Reading literature will help you with this. It was allow you to channel another life, another place, another soul. It will help you develop empathy and compassion, which is vitally needed in the world.

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