The festival’s 20th installment is somewhat bittersweet: Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 National Book Festival will be an online-only experience, running from Sept. 25-27. Though, if one thing is clear from that first year, it’s that the festival can outlast even the most cataclysmic news events and come out stronger on the other side.
Here’s an oral history of the debut event, as told by participating authors and organizers.
Bush: Dr. (James) Billington (then-librarian of Congress) was the one who called me and said, “Why don’t we do a national festival?” We met early on that spring, after we had moved to the White House, and started working on it. The Library of Congress did a lot of the work.
John Y. Cole, the library’s historian and founding director of its Center for the Book: From the beginning, it was clear that this was a natural fit for the library. And we knew it had to be open to the public and free to attend. We never wanted to have anything commercial about it, so we raised the private money. It also had to be nonpartisan.
Author Gail Tsukiyama: It was a wonderful thing, the first lady’s love of books — and it transcended politics. That’s what books do: transcend everything.
Marie Arana, then-editor of The Washington Post’s Book World and current literary director of the festival: I called Jim Billington and said, “We want in,” and The Washington Post became the first charter sponsor of the book festival. I had a lot of contact with authors at the time, so I could bring some on, but it was a little like you had to persuade people in the beginning.
Tsukiyama: My first thought was, how lucky! This whole new festival, and they’re asking you? And then I thought, oh my God, I get to go to Washington.
Within six months — half of what it now takes to plan the event — it was go time. On Friday, Sept. 7, the weekend kicked off with a black-tie dinner at the Library of Congress.
Cole: If you know the Great Hall at the library, you know there are stairs coming down from the overlook over the Main Reading Room. One of the military bands was playing, and suddenly the spotlights shone, and way up high, Mrs. Bush and the president came out of one set of doors. And then Mr. and Mrs. Billington came down the other way, from three stories up.
Author Thomas Mallon: It was quite elaborate and very well-attended politically. You saw a lot of star power from the administration.
Turow: Every Cabinet member save one — which was the protocol at that time — was in attendance. Of course, it would be virtually impossible to stage an event like that now. It was probably the last time there was that kind of steak dinner-like gathering with all the Cabinet members, and their families, and the president and his family, in the same room.
Early Saturday, Bush hosted a White House breakfast for the authors that many recall as an intimate opportunity to get to know each other, more so than they had experienced at other festivals.
Billy Collins, poet laureate from 2001-03: There was this incredible spread — everything you could possibly think of to eat, not just for breakfast but any meal. And I noticed there was instant replenishment. If I took a muffin, I’d turn around and look back and it’d be replaced. So at the end of the brunch it looked like no one had touched anything.
Author Alice McDermott: There was something spine-tingling and patriotic, having the White House as the place that welcomed all the writers. We were all sort of starry-eyed, and Gail Tsukiyama and I were both there with our mothers. We felt like giggling teenagers.
Tsukiyama: I’m glad she remembers that. At a festival as large and grand as the National Book Festival, writers get to meet other writers they admire. The author I was thrilled to meet was Alice McDermott.
Bush: That weekend, friends of mine — many of them very active in the Texas Book Festival — came and stayed at the White House. So we had a great big White House party, which is the most fun kind.
McDermott: Laura Bush was great. She was so gracious, and she had all her friends there, and I remember them all sort of working the room and making sure everybody felt at home.
After breakfast, trolleys delivered participants to the Mall. During the festival, more than 60 authors across a variety of genres gave talks on the east lawn of the Capitol building and in the library’s Jefferson and Madison buildings.
Cole: There was an abundance of enthusiasm that day. I knew it would be successful, whatever happened, but I didn’t know exactly what would happen. I worried and paced the whole festival, and never thought to listen.
McDermott: There was a small-town, carnival feel to having it outside. There were lots of kids and characters in book-related costumes wandering around, and there were a lot of balloons.
Collins: It was a series of tents, and you could wander from tent to tent for different readings. There were more signing tables than I’d ever seen before.
Bush: I went to everything. I was there with all my houseguests, and we went tent to tent on the mall. Larry L. King was there . . . He’s the one who did “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” and I thought that was funny to have him there with us.
Tsukiyama: I was terrified. It was a big white tent, outside the Capitol, and there were a couple hundred chairs, and my first thought was, what if they’re all empty? Because that was a lot of chairs! But something really wonderful about the National Book Festival is that the seats fill up. People come.
Collins: It was the first time I spoke publicly about a project I had just started as poet laureate. It was called Poetry 180, and it featured 180 poems that were contemporary and cool. I introduced the program, and there were nine or 10 high school kids from D.C. who each got up and read a poem that they had picked off the website. Some of them were very nervous, of course. They were reading from a page they had printed out, and some of the pages were kind of shaking.
Arana: Something we didn’t realize until we moved inside was that the noise level on the Mall was difficult. You could hear from one tent to another, so you might be delivering a very serious disposition on death and war, and then you have this tent next to you roaring with laughter.
Peter Slen, executive producer of Book TV on C-SPAN2, which has aired live from the festival since its inception: That first undertaking was, in a word, huge. We consider the National Book Festival to be our Super Bowl — it’s in our backyard, and it’s our topics. What you saw that day were author talks, author interviews and author call-in programs.
Author Walter Mosley: I was being interviewed (on Book TV), and there were lots of people outside listening to us talk. A call came in from a guy who wanted to ask me a question. And he says, “I’m Taj Mahal.” The woman interviewing me said, “Oh, is he a friend of yours?” And I said, “No, he’s Taj Mahal!” One of the major blues musicians of his generation. It was pretty wild, and I know it was him because I’ve been in touch with him since then.
Cole: I thought it would be a great idea to have the book signings in the library’s Great Hall. Well, it turned out it was absolutely jammed. We had no idea we would have so many people coming. So what we did was, we moved a lot of those tables out on the lawn — but that caused nothing but chaos.
Turow: I remember people standing in line for more than two hours to get signed books.
Author Robin Cook: During one of my book signings, one of my old girlfriends from college showed up to get a signature. It was really fun to see her; we hadn’t had any sort of contact for 30 years.
Mallon: I remember it vividly. Liz Carpenter, who was Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary, was there on her little motorized cart. Kinky Friedman, the Texas musician, was there. I remember David McCullough, Tom Brokaw and John Hope Franklin, the great African American historian.
Cole: At the end of the day, this wonderful children’s author, Steven Kellogg, had a train to catch, and we had to cut off his line around 5:30. This festival was supposed to end at 5, but nobody wanted to leave. Steven stood up, and people said, “Are you going to come back?” And he said, “John, I’ll come back if you invite me.” And he did. It was jubilation all day, but then three days later, once 9/11 came, I thought, well, we’re not going to have another festival.
Historian Michael Beschloss: Mrs. Bush was the architect of all this. I didn’t speak to her that day, but I saw her at a little bit of a distance, and she was walking through the crowd, I think between only two Secret Service agents. Again, it underscored this air of informality and no huge need for security. And within three days, we were living in a different world.
Arana: It was a deliciously innocent moment, and then suddenly everything changed.
McDermott: It really does seem like it was from another age, like an 1800s town picnic. It was that sense of, will we ever be that free and innocent again? And I guess we weren’t.
On Sept. 11, “I remember thinking the sun was shining the same way it was the day of the book festival,” Beschloss notes. The future of the festival appeared to be in limbo as the country’s priorities shifted. In an October editorial in American Libraries magazine, editor Leonard Kniffel wrote that it seemed “like a sad memory, a day that marked not a new start but the end of an innocent world that showed itself on the Capitol lawn for that one last safe and friendly day.”
Cole: But Mrs. Bush never wavered in her determination to proceed. And now, of course, it’s the most successful public event ever staged by the Library of Congress and has grown tremendously.
Bush: I knew we would do it again. I do think people sort of looked up into the sky the next year, slightly nervous over it. But I knew we’d keep doing it.
Angela Haupt is a freelance writer and full-time health editor in D.C.