I had so much fun at my first National Book Festival! I first heard of it when I visited DC my senior year of high school, and I’ve wanted to attend ever since. My husband and I have a bunch of friends and family in DC now, so we decided to make a trip of it and catch up with them while also hitting up the National Book Festival.
The problem with these kinds of book festivals is that you seriously need a timeturner. It happened at BookCon, and it happened again at NatBookFest, but fortunately the Library of Congress records and posts all of the panels at NatBookFest, which means I can go online later and watch the ones I had to miss, and you can go watch them too! Unfortunately it looks like it takes them a few months to post them to their website, but in the meantime you can watch the main stage events on the Library of Congress’ Facebook page.
The first panel I went to was for historian David McCullough. I’ve only recently become interested in biography and history books (thank you Hamilton for reigniting my interest in history!) and I haven’t read McCullough’s works yet, but how can you skip a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer?
McCullough was a really good speaker and both my husband and I enjoyed listening to him a lot. He talked about starting out at Sports Illustrated right after college when it was still a new magazine and eventually falling into his career writing about history. His very first book was about the historic flood of Johnstown, and apparently that made all of the publishers pigeonhole him as a catastrophe writer, as he got a lot of offers to write about different tragedies and natural disasters. But he didn’t want to be that kind of writer, and when he stumbled across his idea for his second book about the Brooklyn Bridge, he decided to give writing a try full time.
I was really surprised to learn that throughout the course of his lengthy career, McCullough has had one wife, one publisher, and one typewriter, which he still uses to this day and that he says has never broken on him. And right now, he’s working on a story about pioneers in the northwest territory and said he’s excited to try his hand at writing something that doesn’t have any historic celebrity to bring people to his books.
After McCullough finished speaking, we booked it downstairs for his book signing. The line for McCullough was massive! He started out signing two books, I believe, and posing for photos. But when they realized how slowly he was getting through the line relative to how large it was, they eventually cut him down to one book with no personalization and no photo. It’s not ideal, but I appreciate that they did it since he was able to get through so many more people that way. I would not have gotten his signature otherwise.
I wound up having McCullough sign my copy of John Adams. I really wanted him to sign both of his Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies, but Truman was just such a massive book that I didn’t want to lug it all the way to DC and then walk around the convention center with it. Plus Adams interests me more. And I’m glad I picked Adams, because McCullough said during his talk that Adams is the one president he’d most like to have supper with if he could. It’s too bad I couldn’t get it personalized, but I appreciate that I was able to get his signature at all. And he has such a nice signature!
Because I picked going to McCullough’s panel and signing line, I unfortunately had to skip Sabaa Tahir’s, but I was able to snap a photo of her signing in the line right next to us as we left McCullough’s line.
After getting McCullough’s signature, we ran back upstairs to the event space so we could make the Falling in Love panel featuring Melissa de la Cruz, Nicola Yoon, and Sandhya Menon.
It wasn’t my favorite panel; I thought the moderator’s questions were generally just ok, though I was impressed by the audience questions! I’ve been to a number of author events with some pretty cringeworthy audience questions, so this was a refreshing change of pace.
Listening to the panel made me really wish I enjoyed Nicola Yoon’s books more. I thought The Sun Is Also a Star was just ok, and I have no interest in picking up Everything, Everything. But I really enjoy listening to her speak. I also have a lot more respect for de la Cruz’s new book, Alex and Eliza, which I admit I totally saw as a money grab in the wake of Hamilton’s success. It’s not a story I’m personally interested in, but she put a lot of research and effort into it and I appreciate it a lot more now. Menon didn’t have as much to contribute since she’s only published one book (which I really enjoyed and was the reason I attended this panel), and I enjoyed listening to her speak enough that I decided to go check out her signing line since I didn’t have anything else I wanted to go to until Roxane Gay’s panel.
Menon actually had a pretty short line, so my super nice friend Kelcee saved me a spot while I ran to buy a copy of her book (I read a library copy the first time). Buying the book almost took longer than the signing line! It was a massive, massive line to buy books, but fortunately they had a pretty good process in place and kept everyone moving along. I made it back just in time for Menon to start signing, and the line went by pretty fast. She let me pick between signing in blue or black. I of course picked blue because black is boring, but I commented that she should have had orange to match the book cover and she said she usually does and was surprised they didn’t this time. She’s also really looking forward to the cover reveal for her next book, which she said she’s really excited about.
After I got my book signed, my friend and I decided to go check out this section with a bunch of state booths. We started out just wandering around, but when we realized that all of these kids were running around with maps that they could get stamped at all of the booths, we decided to participate, too.
We might have been a bit old for it, but it was a lot of fun to go around to the different booths and talk to people from various states. And of course, it was very exciting for me to talk to people who actually know where North Dakota is! (Don’t laugh…it’s seriously a problem). We also got some neat bookmarks and stickers and other swag, and when we got all of our states stamped, we were able to collect a prize! My friend got a temporary tattoo, and I got a pencil that says Reader of the Week. Obviously the prizes weren’t the most exciting, but we had a lot of fun collecting the stamps for them!
By the time we finished that, it was about time to split up and go to our last panels of the day. I really wanted to go to Michael Lewis’ panel, but I decided I’d rather see Roxane Gay, so my husband and I went and got in line early for her panel. It’s a good thing we did, because we sat at the back of the room and not that many people after us were able to get in. It was a full house!
Gay is really interesting to listen to. She’s working on such a varied amount of projects. It was so cool when she name dropped Ta-Nehisi Coates, who apparently is the one who suggested that Gay write comic books for Marvel. Gay had a really funny story about not realizing that Marvel was the Marvel and how it finally took an email directly from Marvel for her to realize what exactly was going on. She’s also currently piloting a TV show and has written a screenplay for her fiction novel, An Untamed State.
I’m really looking forward to reading Hunger, which I’ve heard amazing things about, but at the same time, I think it’s going to be a really difficult read. It’s fascinating the amount of unsolicited advice about her health she’s received following the publication of her book, especially in comparison to J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which wasn’t named specifically during the panel, but I’m pretty sure that’s what the questioner was asking about. Anyways, Vance, a white man, wrote about growing up poor in the Rust Belt, and as a result he’s being lauded as an expert and apparently positioned to run for the Senate. In comparison, Gay, a black woman, is being treated like an idiot despite her PhD. It’s just a very stark difference between how their two memoirs have been received, and it’s not a good look.
Once the panel was over we had to run downstairs to get in the signing line. We were pretty far back, but fortunately the line went fairly fast. Gay was only personalizing Hunger and wasn’t posing for photos, but she was willing to sign any of her other books. I personally brought Bad Feminist because I love it and really wanted her to sign it. I was a bit disappointed that she wouldn’t personalize it, but my husband offered to run over to the bookstore and pick up a copy of Hunger for me since I’m planning to read it eventually anyways so I would get a personalized book after standing in such a massive line.
Right as he got back, we noticed that Michael Lewis’ signing line right next to us was super short, so my husband very kindly ran back to the bookstore area to pick up a copy of Moneyball for me and then hopped into the end of Lewis’ line to get it signed (and take a rather unflattering photo of him!). Apparently he wasn’t personalizing (and didn’t make an exception at the very end of the line), but still. I’m so excited I was able to get a signed copy of his book when I didn’t think I’d be able to!
Not long later, it was finally my turn to meet Gay. I definitely fangirled about how much I love Bad Feminist, which is a little embarrassing, but what else am I supposed to do? And I’m pleased to say that I now have a signed copy of Bad Feminist and a personalized copy of Hunger! My TBR is not thanking me right now, but I’m very excited!
After that we were pretty much beat for the day. Overall, I really enjoyed my time at NatBookFest. I wish the signing lines and panels hadn’t been so far away from each other, but the whole thing was incredibly well organized and staffed and I really enjoyed it. I can’t say for certain that I’ll make the trek down to DC for the event next year, but I can’t recommend it highly enough to those who live in the area, and I’ll definitely be sure to check it out online!