National Book Festival: Literacy revived

By JESSIE THORPE, United Press International  |  Oct. 15, 2002 at 7:04 PM
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As a former literacy tutor, it is alarming to contemplate that more than a third of American adults do not read well enough to fill out a job application or to help their children with homework.

Functional literacy is on the decline in our country. Perhaps of even greater concern is the growing problem of aliteracy, referring to those who can read but do not.

Librarians tell us reading is in trouble. Their students choose movies, music, Web surfing -- any leisure activity except curling up with a book. Yet, in our present atmosphere of fear and insecurity because of the charged geopolitical crisis, polls indicate people are snatching up books, groping for meaning through the written word.

First lady Laura Bush recently addressed this apparent contradictory trend, saying, "We've needed the comfort of good books to read and families to read with."

On Saturday these ideas took shape on the West Lawn of the Capitol, where the Library of Congress and the first lady hosted the National Book Festival, the second of what is to be an annual adventure designed to promote the fun of reading.

For seven hours, dozens of American authors, illustrators, actors and musicians enlightened and entertained crowds under the vast canopies of festive tents labeled Fiction and Imagination, Mystery and Thrillers, History and Biography or Children and Young Adult. Within short strolling distance, it was possible to sample the very best writers and storytellers in America. Every half-hour, the programs changed, and though it was impossible to attend every reading or discussion, the quantity of choice and degree of excellence astounded.

Most of the writers spoke to overflow crowds even though the tents accommodated 200 to 300 seated patrons. The superb audio systems were a pleasant surprise, reaching to the outer edges of each audience.

You could not go wrong. Billy Collins, our Poet Laureate, was his usual delightful self, amusing the audience with a poem based on the fact that it took the skins of 300 sheep to produce one Gutenberg Bible. Tim O'Brien, holding forth in a suit and his signature baseball cap, read in a tough and aggressive voice what he called "a gorgeous piece of writing" from his new novel "July, July." Tony Hillerman had them standing 10 deep on all sides as he spun out colorful tales about Taos, N.M.

Mrs. Bush watched the Georgia Sea Island Singers tell stories and sing about plantation heritage. She tapped out a gentle hambone rhythm along with other listeners and signed programs for a few shy children. Thunderous applause frequently broke out and rolled across the lawn.

Down by the reflecting pool, food pavilions served delicious ethnic dishes for modest prices. Everything else at the festival was free. Children lined up at the Reading is Fundamental booth to receive free books. At the Pavilion of States, representatives at individual booths from each state passed out information about local authors and so many freebies -- maps, colorful posters, pencils, book marks -- that people staggered under the weight of their collections.

Live bands featuring Dixieland, jazz and Cajun music played constantly for the crowds. All the authors spent time signing books for their fans, the lines meandering across the Mall seemed to replenish themselves all afternoon.

Wherever you looked were smiling engaged adults and happy enthusiastic children. Even in late afternoon, the tents stayed at capacity. Christopher Buckley had them rolling in the aisles, and Mary and Carol Higgins Clark were packing them in until well after 4 p.m. James McPherson. David McCullough. So many authors, so little time.

You would have thought reading was as popular as basketball. On that note, Jerry Stackhouse and Jahidi White of the NBA, and Swin Cash and Stacey Dales-Schuman of the WNBA showed up to promote to young adults the necessity of learning to read.

Does this event move the ball forward in the solution of our literacy problems? It may be impossible to gauge for awhile. Judging by the enthusiasm and spirit present, it cannot hurt and must give hope to hard-working librarians everywhere.

As a veteran attendee of literary readings, I thought about what made this day so different from the usual book tour to promote authors. Typically, a writer flies into town and runs from radio show to classroom, ending up that evening in a dreary corner of a book store to read and talk to a few fans who are likewise tired but dogged.

I cannot overstate the zesty energy emanating from the authors at this festival. One especially caught the mood for me. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is head of the Afro-American Studies program at Harvard University, among other things. Lively and literate, he thanked Laura Bush and then made humorous comments about being a "Demma ... , Demma ... "

His presentation centered on discovering an original manuscript by a slave woman and his subsequent editing and publishing of her story. The audience was huge, some people even sitting on slightly muddy turf. As Gates finished, to prolonged applause, an African American woman sitting behind me said, "He makes smart cool!"

Later, I heard an interview Gates did on C-Span. Asked if he was surprised to be invited to the festival, given that his politics are so different from the administration, he answered that he enjoyed going to the White House and found the first lady to be an intelligent and informed woman. And then he said something amazing: "I don't know what Laura Bush's politics are."

What an elegant, hope-reviving statement! Gates expressed the very essence of this event. In this partisan-obsessed town, this festival is not about politics or dividing along lines of ideology but rather about gathering and sharing and reading and joy.

Smart is very cool indeed.

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