Library of Congress Celebrated 10th Anniversary of National Book Festival on the Mall

09/28/2010 02:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Alexander Howard Senior Editor for Technology and Society, The Huffington Post

In this digital age, "Book 1.0" still resonates with millions of people. On September 25th, according to the estimates of Library of Congress, more than 150,000 of them were in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall, where the throngs of readers listened, talked, and celebrated mutual bibliophilia beneath the hot sun of at the 10th annual National Book Festival. The festival was organized and sponsored by the Library of Congress, with Honorary Chairs President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

"This year the National Book Festival is celebrating a decade of words and wonder, giving nearly 1 million people the opportunity to interact directly with some of the most gifted and most popular authors of our time, and millions more to enjoy the experience online," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in a prepared statement. "Thanks to Mr. Rubenstein and all of our sponsors and supporters, this national tradition will continue for years to come."

David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and managing director of The Carlyle Group and co-chairs of the new National Book Festival Board, gave the Library of Congress a $5 million gift earlier this year.

"The National Book Festival is a great national treasure that I am honored to support," said Rubenstein in a statement. "There is perhaps no greater gift than to teach and foster reading among children. The festival brings young and old alike face to face with authors in a one-day event that lives on long after the last reading. With this gift the festival will be secure in its funding for years to come."

Even though my own experience as a writer has been almost entirely grounded in the online world, I retain a deep and enduring love for reading books in their physical form from my childhood. What made yesterday particularly special was that the authors of one my most treasured books from my boyhood, The Phantom Tollbooth, were at the festival to talk about their new book, The Odious Ogre. The talk was a treat to the hundreds of people gathered beneath the shade of the pavilion, where a shared knowledge and fondness for the Phantom Tollbooth was evidenced in generations of readers. Norton Juster reflected on the stories within illustrations, a subtlety that I experienced when I saw his images of Milo, Tock, the Dodecahedron or the rest of the marvelous characters in The Phantom Tollbooth.

"What saves us is the continuous rediscovery or reinvention of innocence," reflected Jules Feiffer, commenting on how reading children's literature can refresh our minds and remind us of what it meant to discover a world or idea for the first time.

Elsewhere on the mall, a "readers' theater" featured National Ambassador for Young People's Literature Katherine Paterson reading the final chapter of "The Exquisite Corpse Adventure" a year-long, serialized story written by many children's authors and illustrated by notable artists that was released exclusively online at

Throughout the festival, dozens of other world famous authors shared their work, perspectives and stories. Given the scope of the event, as evidenced in the schedule, no one could see everything. I'm still grateful for the "battle plan" provided by the Library of Congress to navigate the program.

Thankfully, I was able to drink deeply of the wisdom proferred by many authors, including Jonathan Franzen's eloquent consideration of what literature means in the modern world. "Classic literature refuses to let a reader occupy a comfortable moral position," said Franzen. "Speaking and writing fiction is an act of social engagement."

I was also able to elicit a great anecdote from Craig Robison, the head men's basketball coach at Oregon State University and is the former head coach at Brown University. I asked him whether he'd given his brother-in-law (aka President Obama) any advice on his jump shot. While he demurred about giving the president advice, Robinson did talk about what it was like to play basketball with Obama when he first started dating his sister. "You can tell a lot about a man's character from the way he plays basketball," said Robinson, noting that Obama was mindful of all the rules of the game on the court.

Unfortunately, I didn't have my iPhone out to record his answer, but video from the authors' talks and Q&As should appear in the Library of Congress multimedia section over the coming weeks.

C-SPAN was also present to record "Book TV," interviews in their coverage of the 2010 National Book Festival, including one with former first lady Laura Bush. "I'd fall asleep to the roar of fighters in the sky," said Bush in her reading, recalling the days after 9/11 in Washington. She shared an excerpt from her new book, Spoken from the Heart, including quite personal anecdotes of what it was like to be in the White House in that uncertain time.

Bringing books into the digital age

I was able to record the answer of author Jonathan Safran Foer when I asked him about the future of the book. Foer considered writing about 9/11, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and the future of the book. His reply is embedded below:

"As we move forward, and books are going to be read on screens, which seems inevitable, for better for worse, it would be hard for literature to resist the temptation to become more visual," he said.

For more perspective into where and how books might evolve, watch the video from New York Times technology writer Nick Bilton where he talked about living in the future, explaining all of the ways that his new book has been augmented.

The Library of Congress itself is undergoing an evolution into a future driven by bits as well as book. Part of the Book Festival celebrated the launch of "Gateway to Knowledge," a traveling exhibit pulled behind a tractor trailer that will visit dozens of communities across the United States of America. The "Digital Bookmobile" allows curious visitors to browse a public library websites, read eBooks, listen to audiobooks, and improve digital literacy with information on how to download content and use mobile devices.

The pace of evolution in storage media is unprecedented, which is informing the public about digital preservation also was a key focus within the Library of Congress' tent, along with educational games and information about the new Library of Congress mobile app.

Whatever the books looks like in the future, the book festival yesterday offered many insights into our nation's history and present. For more scenes from the 2010 National Book Festival in Washington, visit my gallery on Posterous.