I love books. That's not a surprising thing for an academic whose life is mostly about reading books, talking about books with students, writing and writing and writing, hopefully one day writing a book of my own. My twin sister is even a librarian—books seem to be in my blood. Sometimes I feel like I'm terrible at loving books, though. I don't have stories of a youth spent reading under the blankets with a flashlight. I have zero sense of romance for the book as an object in itself. I have moved across the country way too many times to get all gushy over the smell of bindings and pages, and besides, books are annoying to hold when you're reading in bed. And as much as I love libraries and what they do for communities and what they stand for, I hardly ever actually use them. Don't tell anybody, but I usually just buy whatever book I want at the very moment I want it and ask my workplace to reimburse me for it. I'm a book lover, but kind of terrible at it at the same time.
The ladyfriend, knowing I like books as much as she does, thought it would be a wonderful surprise field trip to take me to Washington, D.C.'s National Book Festival a few weeks ago. Total no-brainer, right? But I have to admit, book festivals make me a little anxious. I mean, I read a lot, but it takes a long time to read, so I've barely read any books. I don't know most of the people reading at the book festival; how do I know what I want to hear? And I certainly didn't plan on buying a bunch of books that I'd have to move someday.
Plus there's the awkward part of authors sitting at their tables waiting for you to come talk to them. I've spent enough time tabling for various candidates and causes to know the barely submerged longing behind the friendly, welcoming eyes smiling expectantly at passersby. What are you supposed to say, especially if you haven't read their books and don't plan on doing so? I write too, and I know the desire to have someone read it, because it's in the reading, actually, that writing takes on life. The long walk through the author's tent reminds me that not only am I not reading their words, nobody's reading mine, either. And then I soothe myself by remembering that it's in the writing that the learning is done, for the writer, an intrinsic pleasure and value, so keep walking, it's not that important.
This was my first visit to the National Book Festival in D.C., though, so I decided to put away my qualms, give myself permission in advance to buy all the books, and hopped in the car with the ladyfriend for the drive to the Greenbelt metro station and a train ride into the city. We got off at the convention center stop and oh my goodness it was a flood of people. Like, thousands and thousands and thousands of people, all waiting to exit the station one at a time because somehow D.C. thinks that's an efficient way to do things.
We spent the day waiting in line for the blue tote bags that'll carry groceries until I manage to lose it and staring at maps and schedules trying to figure out where to go and who to hear read. Unlike Baltimore's book festival, there are no rows of authors gamely hoping you'll show some interest. It's all big fancy names reading to huge rooms full of people who are half listening, half figuring out where to go next.
That's partly awesome. Like, when I saw that Claudia Rankine was going to be reading, I started crying, no lie. I remember when I first downloaded a sample of her book "Citizen: An American Lyric" onto my e-reader. I made it a couple of screens and stopped, knowing two things for sure. First, I needed to actually hold this book in my hand, because the physical book was going to matter with this one (I was right). Second, if I was going to read this book, it was going to change everything about how I see the world. It was going to make me understand how racism works at a cellular level, and I needed to be ready to sit with her words. I was right on both counts, and to get to see her read, get to see her read my very favorite part of her book—the bit about the empty seat on the train, go get it and read it, people—was like being hit all over again, that way that few books hit, which is really why we read in the first place.
But I missed all the writers that we get at Baltimore's festival. I found myself missing the reminder that words don't belong just to the few who manage to get a New York Times book review, but instead are radically democratic. Writing is how we come to know stuff—about the world, about ourselves, about what we value and don't. We'll celebrate reading this weekend, but also writing, and I'm reminded, again, that teaching everybody—and I mean everybody—to do both has to be a priority if we want to figure out who we are, where we are, and what the fuck is going on. So here's my plan this weekend: I'm going to hit the festival and talk to all the writers and ask them why they write, what they read, and then I'm going to go ahead and buy some books and read them, and maybe even do a little writing.