Laura Bush may have left the White House, but her influence lives on in the National Book Festival, which will take place Sept. 26 on the National Mall. As a former librarian who inspired a similar festival in Texas when her husband was governor, Mrs. Bush launched the event soon after arriving in D.C. — and ran into a political buzz saw in 2005 when poet Sharon Olds publicly refused an invitation because of her disagreement with Bush Administration policies.
Fortunately, the new occupants of the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue aren’t playing it safe by ducking the event this year. The Obamas have endorsed the festival and are now "negotiating" their participation, in the words of a Library of Congress spokeswoman. Given that the President owes his fortune and much of his original celebrity to his bestselling memoirs, it seems only fair that he’d sign on to an event that showcases book publishers’ wares. Meanwhile, bean counters can rest assured that this event will not add to the federal debt: Its financing will rely on last year’s sponsor, Target (as well as staff at the Library of Congress and its Center for the Book).
The festival and the Obamas’ endorsement is good news for an industry beleaguered by the recession, or whatever you want to call this sinkhole we’ve been in for the past year. Book publishers euphemistically call this "the most challenging retail climate" in recent history. Literary arts organizations are feeling real pain as the donor pool tightens. So kudos to any celebration of the power of the book is terrific, especially one that attracts 125,000 for a one-day event. This draw puts the National Book Festival in the same league as the Miami Book Fair International (held in October) and The Los Angeles Times Book Festival (planned for April 2010).
A note about the authors: The Library of Congress is mum about who has been invited but promises to release the preliminary list around Independence Day. I hope the list includes a healthy contingent of women writers whose roar will be heard all the way to Capitol Hill — authors such as Jane Mayer ("The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals") and Barbara Ehrenreich ("Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Undermines America," due out this fall). Let the fireworks begin! —Ellen Heltzel