The theme of this yearâ€™s National Book Festival, which took place on Saturday at the sprawling Walter E Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington DC, was: â€œI cannot live without books.â€ Thatâ€™s a quotation by Thomas Jefferson; the festival was also celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Library of Congressâ€™s acquisition of his private library. Thousands turned out to testify to the truth of Jeffersonâ€™s phrase.
Panels such as Why Literature Matters and the YA-focused Letters About Literature/A Book That Shaped Me quickly filled to capacity. And the significance of indigenous voices was given time in the spotlight, along with a five-panel series on war literature and writings on the future of Earth.
Optimism about the future of American storytelling was the mood of the day, even among traditional publishers. Challenging what he called the â€œparadise lostâ€ narrative in literature during a panel called Publishing in the Digital Age, Riverhead Books publisher Geoffrey Kloske speculated that the supposedly transformative changes of the digital age have done less to hurt literature and more to bring down the gates standing between writers and publication. Kevin Larimer pointed to the swift changes in publishing that heâ€™s seen as editor-in-chief of Poets & Writers
â€œThe demise of print maybe has been exaggerated a little bit,â€ Larimer said, explaining that in the past 10 years, heâ€™s seen a rise in independent and small-batch publishing. â€œRather than fewer options for writers to publish books, there are more and more.â€ But even with the more numerous listings heâ€™s seen for independent presses, he was hesitant to group in self-publishing, questioning how those books can be effectively marketed.
During the Why Literature Matters panel, the line to which snaked through the hall long before the doors opened, poets Jane Hirshfield and Jeffrey Brown, and novelist Azar Nafisi held a spirited defense of literatureâ€™s role in contemporary life.
Hirschfield pointed to the ways in which literature allows us to confront the â€œunfathomable in our livesâ€ and â€œrespond in an unexpected, subtler wayâ€ to â€œparts of life that our current culture tends to suppress or ignoreâ€.
â€œThe bridging of private and public is so important, and literature does that,â€ Brown said, reflecting on the ways in which writing poetry allowed him to work through what he was seeing while reporting for PBS NewsHour.
Nafisi, looking back at the importance of literature in her own life as she left her native Iran at 13 years old, said: â€œThe best safeguards of memory are poetry and literature, able to withstand the cruelty of man and the cruelty of time.â€
The role of time in writing was the central focus of one of two Reading Latin America panels. â€œWhat a novelist does is the intimate work of the historian,â€ Ãlvaro Enrique said, reflecting on the ways that novelists bring together the hidden recesses of the countryâ€™s history and human experience. MarÃa JosÃ© Navia said that Latin American writers are working with a â€œbroken archiveâ€. Cristina Rivera Garza discussed her own work with a Mexican psychiatric archive as an example of the ways in which writers bring the past into the present. Alejandro Zambra echoed this sentiment, saying, â€œYou write novels to find something missing in history.â€
The festival also marked the first public appearance of Juan Felipe Herrera as the new poet laureate. At a speech celebrating his laureateship (to launch officially on 15 September), he called his journey to poetry a â€œlong roadâ€.
â€œWhen you are a migrant your only plan is moving,â€ he said. â€œLiving is the only plan you really have.â€
Herrera also announced his first project, which he is calling La Casa de Colores. Herrera intends to set up a website to which visitors are â€œgoing to contribute for almost a yearâ€. Herrera expressed his hope that all Americans will add their work, building out a diverse range of voices from many backgrounds. Themes and formats will change, but the website will remain open for contributions throughout his laureateship, which will end in April next year. Selections will be made from those contributions, and a sprawling poem that encompasses the many voices of what Herrera calls â€œla familiaâ€ of the entire United States will be the final result.
If the festival is any measure of the enthusiasm of Americans for connecting literature to life, it will be one vibrant poem indeed.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington DC. You can find more of her work here.