A few words about books

First lady takes time out to promote annual festival

October 08, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

First lady Laura Bush recently scheduled seven minutes - seven minutes! - to sit for an interview about reading and Saturday's National Book Festival, an annual event she holds in Washington with the Library of Congress.

At first, it seemed an impossible task, particularly when the first lady, from public appearances, appears to have a lot to say, but tends to say it in a rather serene, leisurely way.

But not to worry. The former librarian is as efficient in interviews as she is diligent about reading.

"I read every day," she said, right off the bat. "And I have read every day since I learned to read."

A book, she added, gets between 50 and 80 pages to hook her before she gives up on it and moves on. And if she gets bored - and only if she gets bored - she skips ahead to the last page just to see who did it.

More fast-breaking revelations as the clock ticked on: The first lady is thinking about becoming an author herself, although she's hesitant to talk about the subject. "I'll wait to announce it until I've made up my mind," she said.

And, interestingly: She orders most of her books online from Amazon.com.

At the time of the interview, the end of September, she was knee-deep in Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

"During a campaign, when I'm busy and going from town to town and sort of stressed, it's nice to have those sort of books that are easy and charming," she said.

As for her husband, he was reading Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg.

"He really likes to read history and biography best. He does read some great baseball books - and there are a lot of great baseball books."

But enough about Bushie, as she reportedly calls him. Laura Bush's purpose in this interview was to promote the National Book Festival, and she smoothly segued to the task at hand. "In fact," she continues, "Sharon Robinson [daughter of baseball great Jackie Robinson] has written a number of great children's books and young-adult books. She'll be at the festival."

The event was Laura Bush's creation. It is a gathering of some of the country's most prestigious and popular authors.

"It gives us a way to celebrate American writers, to let people know about writers that they might not know about," she said.

Bush wore an electric-blue shirt, a light-gray pants suit, chunky silver earrings and her trademark perma-smile. She is tinier than she seems on television, and, off camera, she speaks in loud, rapid bursts.

Perched on the edge of a floral-patterned upholstered chair in the Vermeil Room of the White House, she rattled off the names of authors scheduled to speak and seemed familiar with their latest works. Although she had a briefing book about the festival on her lap, she never consulted it.

This year, roughly 70 authors will speak about, sell and sign their books in eight pavilions organized by subject. Authors scheduled to appear include mystery writer Robert Parker, biographer Ron Chernow and columnist Anna Quindlen.

The first National Book Festival was held three years ago. Bush started a similar event in Texas when her husband was the governor, and she smiled like a proud parent when she mentioned that this would be the Texas festival's ninth year.

Bush is quick to acknowledge that book festivals are primarily attended by those who enjoy reading, so while the National Book Festival reinforces and stirs passion in book lovers, she says it is not designed to proselytize.

Still, the festival is one of the few things in Washington these days that is safely bipartisan. Even prominent poet Sam Hamill - whose plan to read anti-war poems at a poetry symposium organized by Bush in February last year led to the symposium's cancellation - had warm words for the first lady.

"I certainly appreciate what Laura Bush has done for libraries and reading," he said, "and I think my fellow poets would agree. Just because we oppose this administration's polices and war, does not mean we wouldn't join with them to celebrate writers." Hamill was not invited to the book festival, but those who were don't expect a political event. "I think that writing and politics don't mix well," said Ian Caldwell, the co-author of the best-selling novel The Rule of Four. "I think that artists should remind themselves it is not their job to be politicians. We would do this no matter who the president is, and we're happy to do it, proud to do it."

Caldwell attended a National Book Festival before his work was published.

"One of the wonderful things about events like this is it really reminds people of the relationship between readers and writers," he said. Listening to other successful writers talk about their struggles inspired his own writing, he added.

The first lady was glad to hear of this. Writing is a solitary task, she said. And the Book Festival gives authors a chance to visit with each other.

Surely, there is always more to say about writing and writers, particularly by an avid reader such as Laura Bush. But the White House clock said 3:47 p.m. - a full 10 minutes over the allotted seven minutes - and after prodding by her staff, Bush stood up and extended her hand.

The White House photographer snapped a few posed photos and the first lady hurried off.

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