By Carolyn Lang
Attending the 13th Annual National Book Festival was like entering a parallel world in between the Washington Monument and The Capitol, no longer the Mall but a compressed universe with microcosms of real and imagined life. I realized immediately that the tents were less a way to keep out the slanting autumnal equinox sun and September rain than a symbolic delineation of an ocean of creation and expression in the shade.
An attempt to synthesize the festival would only be reductive to its immense variety; a scope that seemed to in some senses encapsulate and represent the spectrum of life in general. The contribution of writers is to describe the breadth of experience and emotion that life presents, to express it in a way that reflects the inexhaustible possibility. The only real commonality between the vast diversity of the talks was the emphasis on inhabiting other consciousnesses, telling stories and creating stories that make us recognize things in ourselves that are emblematic of greater truths. Each talk was testimony of that particular writer’s obsession; their compulsion to not only inhabit other places but to inhabit other psyches.
I weaved in and out of the tents feeling constantly overstimulated. The possible outcomes of life were made out-sized and took on massive half hour tides as I walked along the water at their shores. Writers have the worst kind of wanderlust, the restless desire to not only to roam geographically but to shift their fundamental experiences.
I went between lives as quickly as I could walk, from worshiping at D.T. Max’s altar to David Foster Wallace to laughing at Brad Meltzer’s sparklingly irreverent account of stealing souvenir napkins from the White House that transitioned into a kinetic story of resilience and fate. “Sometimes we feel profoundly alone and sometimes we realize how connected we are,” he concluded.
I tried to control my desire to get swept away in the worlds of the different authors, often feeling drawn to follow them to the book signing to continue to listen, then looking down at the plastic laminated press pass that I had around my neck with a cartoon picture of a frog reading a book. This was serious. I had a job to do and I could not be swayed by my compulsion to become submerged in writers’ depths.
“Readers of literature are readers of life,” Amity Gaige said; if we have a responsibility it is to transcend the condemnation to our singular perspective and chip away at the truth. I sat in a rainy glowing tent as Marie Arana talked about the mythic figure that was Simon Bolivar, her words seeming to transmit an ancient electricity into the wet ground. I was engaged by Charles Wheelan’s description of pragmatic economics and Daniel Pink’s quippy charisma and theory about decatastrophizing failure. I was never more aware of the limitation of being one person as I attempted to skirt between all the talks I wanted to attend.
Throughout the weekend there was a dual emphasis on journalism and literature’s gilded, turbulent past and their intoxicatingly uncertain future. There were invocations of Dostoevsky, Kafka and Kerouac juxtaposed with representations of journalism’s brisquely dynamic incarnation. DeLillo’s talk had the frenetic edge of the Cold War and Albert Goldbarth’s heaving and primal poetry was reminiscent Henry Miller. Hoda Kotb’s magnetic presence brought the discussion joltingly to the current moment, and she told of shopping for shoes at Saks Fifth Avenue in the same breath as explaining a crisis simulation to prepare her for an assignment in Iraq. A burlap sack was put over her head, she said, and the best way to keep from inhaling carbon dioxide was to bite down on it.
The writers were often dazzling but the interactive question‐and‐answer after each session made for a palpable egalitarian feel that reinforced the idea that perhaps the most democratizing aspect of life is the fact that everyone is given their own perspective.
I gained a deepened understanding from the talks of the structure and methodology underlying some of the most influential books of the century. The discussions prompted me to consider the parameters and utility of objectivity, the power of word choice and the shape of letters, the provisions of ethics, the presence of a narrative voice, and the infinite worlds of the imagination.
Presenters talked of the tremendous responsibility that writing took on when attempting to articulate life’s often nightmarish extremes. D.T. Max told of David Foster Wallace’s attempt to understand and pathologize life, a search for authenticity in a troubled and addicted world that burned with such intensity that it extinguished him in his own flame. “A whole generation is starting to understand that David’s struggle to live is something we all share,” he said.
David Finkel looked unflinchingly into the harrowing effects of war and the memories that men afflicted with PTSD would spend a lifetime trying to forget. James McBride spoke about the importance of learning about slavery, not in a textbook sense, but in the deconstruction of the complex system of relationships that constituted it. Jeff Chu spoke of collective stories, of the collision of so many people coming together, told from the vantage point of the volatile and explosive intersection between faith and sexuality. Khaled Hosseini said that life is about situating the conflicting truths and all the things we hold dear that allow us to make sense of our world.
I wondered how writers inherit so much depth and so much madness while still being able to give it back to the readers in a way that makes it comprehensible; while still encouraging people to internalize the emotions and challenges of others while the readers’ own lives probably present challenge and hardship enough.
I tried to form correlations. I tried to build synthesis and identify currents but I saw only one similarity: these writers, these authors, were metabolizing the human experiences they collected and using them to provide markers on the path, to create the future through developing a more informed, a more effective, creative, a more empathetic society. The recurring theme was that a good writer can provide a new and scintillating reality in both truth and fiction; one that teaches us something about life or about ourselves and binds us together in the shared experience. The point of all the books was to present truths that would enrich our perspective and render and recast the world in the process, and to provide an escape when our own lives seem restrictive.
The speakers emphasized the need to keep contributing, to keep pouring information and wonder and pain into our collective subconscious. “People will always read books, people will always want stories,” William Martin said.
“Write where you are, write about whatever you are, stories are unfolding right in front of you,” James McBride told me, “and keep going.”
I walked away in a daze after hearing the final talk about the universal themes of beauty and virtue in the context of the Catholic Church, feeling on the cusp of some kind of liminality, with the distinct exhausted sensation that comes from a day at the beach wading in the water, the out‐of‐control feeling of being swept up in a wave and the feeling of an elemental, compositional shift in the body’s pH from swallowing the salty water. Gaige’s advice to young writers echoed in my mind: “Open your heart and keep it open. Open your mind and keep it open.”
The Mall was back to normal the next day, the seance was over, but something had changed in the air and in myself, and every person I encountered was another perspective, another life unfolding in the rich and interconnected web and entering our collective story as we tell and retell it together.