Oh, Harper Lee. I will never understand how a woman with such a mind, such a love of words, and such a way with them, could have the courage to stop molding them into narratives that change lives. But that's exactly what she did. She came, she thought, she wrote, she molded, she narrated, she altered, forever, and then, she went.
A single book.
Beloved, generation on generation.
Fraught with currency and character, generation on generation.
Did she stop at just one book because she had the courage to believe she'd said exactly enough? Or because she was afraid she wouldn't be able to say another thing that mattered near as much, to minds small and egos large?
The world may never know.
(If you didn't have the chance to read this rare interview with Nelle - Ms. Lee - conducted in 2010, near the 50th anniversary of her only book's release, you should. And if it's been a few years since you last read 'The Book,' you might want to give it another go. I try to every few years, just to make sure to remember all the glorious bits I've forgotten.)
But I really didn't open this 'Compose Post' box to talk about Harper Lee. That just happened, all of its own accord. I came here to talk about the 2012 National Book Festival.
Seeing as I've been absent from this place for months on end, I'm pretty sure I might've forgotten to mention that I went again this year.
And who am I kidding, really? 'Cause even if I did mention it, do you honestly think that's going to stop me from waxing poetic about how unbearably wonderful an experience it was?
Exhilarating. Illuminating. World expanding. Mind blowing. Starstruck making.
All of that.
I met David Maraniss. You may have heard of him recently because he is the author of the new book, 'Barack Obama: The Story.' Mr. Maraniss is an editor at The Washington Post, and an accomplished historian. He wrote the definitive book on Bill Clinton - engaging, instructive, charismatic, and maddening, much like the former President himself. He also wrote a book about Vince Lombardi that is widely acclaimed as "the best sports biography ever published."
I mentioned to Mr. Maraniss that I intend to buy the Lombardi book for my son for Christmas. I may have mentioned that my son is not the biggest reader in the world, although he tends to devour anything sports related. Mr. Maraniss responded.
"Funny story," he said to me. "Soon after that book was published, I was on a book tour and two guys in line - real jocks, very athletic, big guys - came up to me. 'Sir,' one of them said, 'I just had to tell you that this is the best book I've ever read.' His buddy started laughing, gave me a nod and said, 'Yeah, well...that's only because it's the ONLY book he's ever read!.'"
I howled like it was the funniest thing I'd ever heard. At the time, hearing him tell it, it seemed like it was.
I met Patricia Cornwell, too. She was perfunctory, assembly line-ish, and utterly uncharming. She is, however, a book selling machine. I've never read any of her Scarpetta mysteries, but her Jack the Ripper account is a book I enjoyed very much. I told her so. She told me she was headed to London after the book festival and to watch for a Ripper "revision," coming soon. Ooo, the intrigue. Or something. Meh.
Geraldine Brooks, on the other hand, was quiet, kind, interesting, interested, and just...lovely. I had brought my copy of 'March' for her to sign, but when it was finally my turn, I mentioned to her that 'People of the Book' was one of my favorite books ever, and I couldn't believe I had forgotten to bring my copy. She said, "Hang on just a sec."
Then she bent over, dug through one of her bags, and pulled something out. She signed it with a flourish and handed it to me. "It's a book plate. Now, when you get home and find your copy, you can put this in it."
How perfectly sweet was that?
Jeffrey Eugenides was a highlight. He and Geraldine were scheduled to speak at the same time and sign at the same time. I had to make a choice. I opted to listen to Jeffrey - whose writing blows my mind with its originality, inventiveness, and fearlessness - and meet Geraldine. It was the right call.
Sometimes when you have the chance to see in person an author you hold in great esteem, to hear them speak, to watch them interact with fans and admirers...well, let's just say writers are a funny bunch of humans. Many times the very things you love most about them - the personality and communication talent that graces the pages of the books you cradle and shelve and lend and re-read - well...many times those things exist in that writer's mind, heart and fingertips, but not really so much in his or her ... person.
I'm trying to be kind. But see Patricia Cornwell, above. Prolific, talented, a dynamo on the page. All the charm of an Earth Shoe in person. Jonathan Franzen is notoriously closed and distant. Heck, look at the example of Harper Lee, for that matter.
Jeffrey Eugenides was the opposite of all of that. He was engaging. Witty. Clearly brilliant. Self-deprecating. Society-deprecating. I stood and listened to him - with my daughter by my side - and was thoroughly entertained. And relieved. I already admired the guy's talent. Now I just plain like him, too.
The guy in the blue shirt in the picture here was signing Jeffrey's reading to the audience, his fingers, gestures and facial features keeping time with Jeffrey's voice. At one point, Eugenides is reading from his new book, 'The Marriage Plot.' It's a particularly intense, salacious passage about a lecherous man lusting after a young girl at a candy counter, when he stops, mid-sentence, looks at the blue shirted gentleman signing furiously away, and asks, "So, what's the sign for 'boner' anyway?"
It was...in a word? Awesome. Humanizing. Real Keeping.
Did I mention it brought the house down? Hilarious.
Between the lines, as it were, were some interesting moments, too.
Stumbled into a presentation by a new-to-me author named Tayari Jones and she blew me away with her eloquence, her voice, her narrative. I bought two of her books the next day. Just finished 'Silver Sparrow.' Devoured it. Highly recommend it.
Waited in line as long as I could bear for David and Julie Nixon Eisenhower. Last I heard, they've yet to show up. Go figure.
Had the immense honor and privilege of hand delivering a copy of a friend's new book of poetry to one of America's finest and most fearless voices, National Book Award winner Nikki Finney. It was a Moment. Capital M.
Discovered Susan Hertog, who has written a book I cannot wait to crack open, called 'Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson: New Women in Search of Love and Power.' Click the link. Check it out. I have a feeling it's going to be one of those remarkable books that opens door after door after door onto areas of interest and works of writing I've never been introduced to before.
Experienced a brief, wondrous moment with one Junot Diaz, who was a clear fan favorite, the festival darling, and deservedly so. He didn't sit behind a table to sign, he stood in front, engaged in personal conversation with each and every fan. He signed with flair, posed for pictures, hugged, chatted ... did all of that with a smile on his face ... until every one of the 8,234, 251 in his line was satisfied and happy. That makes him a flat out rock star in my book. Trust me...not every author would do that. Not even many authors would do that. He treated his fans with the awe and respect that they give him, and for that reason alone, I will be a fan of his myself forevermore.
You know what's kinda extra-exciting about the whole Junot thing? I've never read his work before and now I feel like I have a treasure chest of magic laid out before me, just waiting to be explored.
It always comes. We can put the book down, hold off reading the final pages until we just can't take it anymore, postponing the inevitable.
But it always comes.
Here's the thing, though.
With books? With words wrested from one person's soul for the care and feeding of another's? Stories borne from mouth to ear, time after time after time ever after? These things are neverending. Once they're in us, they are of us, and we carry them on, from once upon a time until the end of days, passing them on to the next keepers of the tales with each turn of the page; chapter: next.