11th Annual National Book Festival, Washington D.C.: Day Two

I’m back! Since weekends are my main opportunity for writing new posts, and I was in Chicago visiting my sisters this last weekend, it’s been a little while since I posted part one of my Book Festival write-up. And in the meantime, I’ve got six books I’ve read that I’ve yet to review! But to finish what I started, here’s day two of the National Book Festival:

My main draw on the second day was Joel Achenbach, Washington Post staff writer and author of A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, which I reviewed last month on my blog. That book is about the BP Oil Spill of 2010.

At his Festival talk, Achenbach described reading through a handbook of petroleum engineering bit by bit, just to familiarize himself with the terms. Deepwater drilling is a new frontier for our technological society, and what BP was doing before the Deepwater Horizon disaster – temporarily abandoning a deepwater drill – had been done only a few times before.

When reading A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, I had surmised that Achenbach had written the book quickly, given the recency of the events and the April 2011 publication date. At the Festival, Achenbach confirmed that he wrote it in a “mad frenzy” so that it would come out by the anniversary of the Macondo well blowout.

In his talk, Achenbach reiterated the themes from his book, such as the vulnerabilities of our technological society. I liked how pragmatic he was about the oil industry. He said, one thing to keep in mind is that we the public have no idea how big the oil industry really is – it’s bigger than you think. In addition, we should realize that the oil industry is not something the U.S. controls. Achenbach also pointed out that the industry is so big and global, that they are not that perturbed by regulations we pass, as they have the whole world to drill in. As to the question, should we deepwater drill, the answer is “we’re going to.” We’re all complicit in the oil drilling industry if we drive.

As a lover of non-fiction books, I liked when Achenbach said “I think people should be more familiar with the society we live in. Read books. Learn the language.” This is good encouragement for me to read more science and technology books.

I wandered around after Achenbach’s talk, and fetched up at the poetry tent, where poet Terrance Hayes was reading his poems. I especially liked his poem “The Rose Has Teeth” which is kind of a conversation between Hayes and his piano. Hayes was delighted to answer questions from the audience and he had an intriguing take on the old adage of ‘finding your voice.’ He said that in his writing he likes to surprise himself. He said, “See if you can get away from your voice.” In response to another question, he continued in this vein (and this is put together from my hastily written notes): “I think everybody has this limited vault of images, which constitute your vision, your worldview . . . The idea is trying to get around it, looking at ways to resist what you’re given. You can’t outrun your voice, but you can try to. It’s fun to fight against it.”

Describing his process of writing, Hayes said that when he writes a poem, he is writing for the only other person in the room, which is his shadow. It’s in the revision process (a process he likes), that he thinks about the audience, and asks himself would they be able to follow it (while still valuing mystery in the poem.)

I saw Neal Stephenson next. I had looked him up before the Festival, when I was checking out the roster of featured authors. Stephenson writes massive cyberpunk/sci-fi/speculative fiction tomes. I was intrigued by this, although I had never heard of him before. Stephenson read an excerpt from his recent novel, Reamde, which is a 1056-page thriller involving a multi-player online game. At times, the technological detail in the excerpt he read was not compelling to me, but at other times, it was quite funny and spot-on about human relationships with technology. I’m not sure if his books are for me, and their size is definitely daunting.

The last author I saw at the Festival was Siddhartha Mukherjee, who wrote The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which I have not yet read. An assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University as well as a staff cancer physician, Mukherjee spoke with confidence about his topic. He described tracking down the stories of early cancer patients. And he said that “illness becomes a mechanism by which we see the whole world.”

Asked by an audience member about the link between a person’s psyche and their experience with cancer, Mukherjee said, “I get in trouble for saying this but I think it is true: I think there is with cancer the old idea of blaming the victim . . . The psyche is related to healing but I know people with positive attitudes who die and people with negative attitudes who live.”

I was happy when an audience member asked Mukherjee about the authors or books that he admired. He mentioned Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Michael Pollan and Susan Sontag’s Illness is a Metaphor. I own Carson’s book but haven’t read it and I own and have read one of Pollan’s books, but I may have to look into the other two.

So that was my Festival experience!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “11th Annual National Book Festival, Washington D.C.: Day Two

  1. I haven’t seen any of these authors, but I’m making plans for events (to attend) this season and always like to hear who’s compelling and what kinds of impressions they leave with other readers. What authors say they’re reading is always of interest to me too. If you are looking for another way into Rachel Carson’s works, there is a collection of her letters to/from Dorothy Freeman which I think it just wonderful.

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