Spreading the word on joy of books

Reading: Authors and poets to take part in a festival organized by first lady Laura Bush.

September 06, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Bookish is hardly the first word that pops into mind when one thinks of President Bush. But his wife has already become famous for her love affair with reading and books.

This weekend, librarian-turned-first lady Laura Bush, a woman whose bookshelves are arranged according to the Dewey Decimal System, gets to mix with some of her favorite people in the country - nearly 60 prize-winning authors - as she and the Library of Congress play host to the first National Book Festival.

Saturday's daylong festival, on the east lawn of the U.S. Capitol and the nearby grounds and buildings of the Library of Congress, is open to the public free of charge and geared to both children and adults.

Bush has said that in planning the festival, which is modeled after an annual book fair she started in Texas six years ago, she wanted to celebrate "the sense of adventure and satisfaction that comes from reading a good book."

The festival will include readings and book signings with acclaimed authors and illustrators such as historian David McCullough, legal suspense writer Scott Turow, novelist Gail Godwin, World War II historian Stephen Ambrose and former poet laureate of Maryland Lucille Clifton.

Other activities include panel discussions, storytelling sessions, clinics and consultations on such issues as copyrights and document conservation, a program with basketball stars from the NBA and WNBA, illustration demonstrations, musical performances and roaming storybook characters such as Peter Rabbit, the Cat in the Hat and Clifford the Big Red Dog.

The list of participating authors is wide-ranging. But all have received a national literary award of some sort, and many are favorites of Bush's. That includes authors such as mystery writer Sue Grafton, whose most recent addition to her alphabet series is P Is for Peril, and Thomas Mallon, whose historical novel Henry and Clara was among the books the first lady read this summer.

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington says the idea for the national festival was hatched in a conversation he had with Bush on the eve of the presidential inauguration this year. Both he and the first lady wanted to "encourage and dramatize the importance of reading" and also associate reading with fun.

He said a wide variety of authors seemed eager to participate. "Reading is as universally desirable and uncontroversial an issue as you can get," said Billington.

Still, Clifton, a professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland, says she thought long and hard before accepting the invitation, since she is not a fan of the Bush administration.

She ultimately decided to participate in the festival, where she will be featured on a panel on poetry. But she won't attend the black-tie gala for the authors at the Library of Congress tomorrow night (to be attended by President and Mrs. Bush) or a White House breakfast Saturday morning.

"The book matters. Poetry matters," says Clifton. "I'm just going to do my job."

Texan Larry L. King, author of 13 books and seven stage plays including The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, served as master of ceremonies at many of the Texas book festivals Bush held, and says his convictions as a liberal Democrat have not dampened his enthusiasm for the first lady's project.

"She's doing good things with this," says King, who plans to read from his 1998 book, True Fact, Tall Tales and Pure Fiction on Saturday.

Another veteran of the Texas book festivals, country music singer-turned-mystery writer Kinky Friedman, says Bush's "unbridled enthusiasm" for books and reading generally transcends political allegiances.

Friedman, who calls himself a "charismatic atheist" when it comes to politics, says he became a pen pal to George W. Bush after the former Texas governor wrote to him praising one of his columns in Texas Monthly magazine.

Invited to this weekend's book festival, Friedman plans to read from a coming book, Kinky Friedman's Guide to Texas Etiquette, or How to Get to Heaven or Hell Without Going Through Dallas-Fort Worth.

He says he plans to wear his cowboy hat and "high rodeo drag" to the White House, try to remember not to curse and scout out the Lincoln Bedroom.

After Bush wrote inviting him to the White House, the author of 15 mystery novels responded that he'd like to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom and bring along his "four women, four dogs and four editors."

Friedman says the president wrote back saying the women might be a problem, but the dogs were a possibility.

The author hopes to charm the president with excerpts from his new book, which includes passages on "Famous Texans Not From Texas" (such as Bush, who was born in Connecticut) and "Things You'd Never Hear a Texan Say" (such as "That song needs a little more French horn.").

National Book Festival

What: Panel discussions, storytelling sessions and clinics featuring first lady Laura Bush and 60 authors; NBA and WNBA stars; illustration demonstrations; musical performances and roaming storybook characters.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday

Where: East lawn of the U.S. Capitol; Thomas Jefferson and James Madison buildings of the Library of Congress, at First Street and Independence Avenue S.E., Washington

Admission: Free (More information is available online at www.loc.gov/bookfest)

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