National Book Festival 2014

For ease of reference, authors discussed in this post and their most recent work: Paul Bogard (End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light), Eula Biss (On Immunity), Paisley Rekdal (Intimate: An American Family Photo Album), Elizabeth McCracken (Thunderstruck & Other Stories), Richard Rodriguez (Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography), Louisa Lim (The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited).

This is the tenth year I have attended the National Book Festival, and the 14th year of the festival itself. For the first time, the festival was not held on the National Mall, but in the Washington Convention Center. Like most people, I resist change, and was really disappointed when I heard about the change of venue. Despite having to deal with heat and/or rain some years, I loved the combination of bookish celebration and the vista offered by the Mall grounds.

I arrived at the convention center last Saturday still inwardly grousing. I was also missing my friend Kristin, who had always been part of this annual tradition of attending the festival, but couldn’t make it this year. It didn’t take me long to get over these mixed feelings, as a celebration of books is always a happy occasion.

I first saw Paul Bogard who discussed his book End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. The book is ordered from chapter 9 to chapter 1, corresponding to the Bortle scale, which measures the brightness of the night sky (i.e. the measure of light pollution). Skies over cities would usually measure at class 9 on the Bortle scale, while very remote places may rate a class 1.

Bogard explained that he isn’t against artificial light, but he argued that it’s being used wastefully, irresponsibly and in ugly ways. He displayed some photos which illustrated things like “sky glow” and “light trespass”, as well as the difference between unshielded light and shielded light. There are ways to use artificial light for safety that is more energy efficient, more pleasing aesthetically, and that doesn’t disrupt people’s sleep and nocturnal animals’ habits. Bogard also referenced Paris’ new approach to artificial lighting, as well as Tucson and Flagstaff’s lighting ordinances. I found the talk to be very engaging, and it seemed the rest of the audience did as well, as a number of people approached to ask questions after the talk.

I managed to ford the stream of pedestrian traffic to get to the Poetry & Prose room, where Eula Biss and Paisley Rekdal formed a two-person panel on the subject of creative non-fiction. I chose this session because I’d heard of Biss’ book On Immunity, but came away super-impressed by Paisley Rekdal, who was a new name to me. (To be clear, as the following quotes will show, both authors offered great and intelligent contributions to the panel discussion. But Rekdal ended up being the standout author for me at this year’s festival.)

The session unsurprisingly started with the moderator asking the authors to define creative nonfiction. The authors provided good answers, but the question – while necessary and expected – bored me, so I’ll just jump to some of the cooler comments:

 – Rekdal compared creative nonfiction to photography, in that the work is both artistic and documentary in nature.

– While working on On Immunity, Biss was bothered when someone told her “we don’t speak to the press” because she didn’t consider herself to be “the press.” A little later she said that while there is a relationship between journalism and nonfiction/essay writing, the big difference is deadlines. And she didn’t say that just to be pithy, but because – obviously – if you have more time, there are more angles in which to approach a topic.

– Regarding “facts”: Biss remarked that facts can act as a formal restriction in nonfiction writing. If you don’t want to depart from the facts, you have to figure out a way to work with them in an artistic way. Rekdal added that a fact is not the primary definition of truth. Truth is narrativized.

– One of my favorite comments by Rekdal: she said that connectivity is the primary goal of creative nonfiction. Why does this idea go with this idea? Why is this relevant today?

– Comment from Biss: We don’t have a great vocabulary for truth. We could use, like, 27 more words for it.

– Rekdal, on her recent work Intimate, which is partly about Edward S. Curtis who photographed Native American people in the early 20th century: she found herself bothered by what Curtis chose to photograph or not photograph, and realized it was because he purposely never photographed biracial people as part of his project, and Rekdal is herself biracial.

– Near the end of the talk, both authors praised the small presses  which published their work (Tupelo for Rekdal, Graywolf for Biss), and their editors. Biss said that one of the chapters in her book wouldn’t have existed if her editor hadn’t pushed her in that direction.

I stayed in the room to hear Elizabeth McCracken. As with all the authors I saw at this year’s Festival, I’d never read her books. The only thing I’d read by her was the foreword she’d written for my friend’s book on stillbirth. Despite admitting that her new book of short stories is very depressing (“maybe they should come with medication”), she herself infused her talk with a lot of humor. I liked her comparisons between novels and short stories: novels are reenactments and short stories are dioramas; writing short stories is like a blow to the solar plexus while novels are a long linger illness from which you won’t recover. She remarked that three stories from her new collection are from the same discarded novel, but no one has guessed which three they are, because they have nothing to do with each other. She joked “That just shows you how bad the novel was.”

An audience member asked McCracken which authors she likes to read. Her off-the-cuff answer was a combination of classics and new authors/works: Lolita, Roxane Gay, Cristina Henriquex’ The Book of Unknown Americans, Rose Tremain (I think? or a similarly named author), Edward P. Jones, Lolita again, Dickens.

After meeting friends for lunch in the convention center, we all went to hear Richard Rodriguez. My friend Jenny had a dog-eared, annotated copy of his memoir Hunger of Memory, complete with a fabulously dated cover design. I didn’t know anything about him. He freely admitted during his talk “I’m turning of an age now where I will say anything.” And he did – his talk rambled over a range of topics, from the dearth of local news to women’s liberation to desert religions. I couldn’t always follow his segues, and found the talk subsequently unfocused, but was happy my friend later was able to meet him and get her well-loved copy signed by him.

I had warned Jenny ahead of time that the authors of children’s books tend to have long book-signing lines, and she took my advice and left after Rodriguez’ talk to get a head start on Judith Viorst’s line (author of the Alexander books). My other friend and I chose to attend Louisa Lim‘s talk on a whim. Her topic – the selective amnesia in China regarding the events of June 1989 – was fairly interesting, but I started to feel quite tired then and didn’t take any notes worth relaying here.

As we left the large ballroom, we had to fight our way through a pressing crowd. “Who’s next?” a girl behind us wondered. I recalled that it was Doris Kearns Goodwin and that she had written Team of Rivals, which explained the mass of people. I’m tempted to say, “only in D.C.”, but that is probably underestimating the interest in presidents and politics elsewhere in the nation.

My last stop was the Book Sales area, where I succumbed to temptation and picked up the recent books by Bogard, Biss and Rekdal. This year the Festival’s bookseller was local independent bookstore, Politics & Prose, a nice show of support for indie book sellers.

And that was the end of this year’s National Book Festival experience!



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2 responses to “National Book Festival 2014

  1. Sounds great! The talk with Biss and Rekdal sounds particularly interesting — I love Rekdal’s point that the main thing in creative nonfiction is connectivity. So true.

    • Isn’t that such a great way of seeing it? It makes me want to read more creative nonfiction essays, because I feel that is often where you see such connectivity crystallized.

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