Thursday, October 1, 2009

National Book Festival: A travelogue

  • My name is Donald Quist and I'm a Circulation Coordinator for the LITC. Last Saturday I had the pleasure of attending the National Book Festival in Washington D.C. Hosted by the Library of Congress, this annual festival attracts over 100,000 people each year. Librarians are invited from across the country to represent each state, and over fifty nationally published authors, illustrators, and poets are asked to give lectures, readings, interviews, and book signings. Below is a firsthand account of my journey...

9/25/09 : 9:38pm - 11:49pm
I speed through traffic, dodging semi-trucks on back roads from Charlotte. I have a train to catch. The Library of Congress is hosting its annual National Book Festival tomorrow and I've got plans to shake hands with one of my favorite authors, Junot Diaz. I entertain fantasies of me telling him how much his writing has improved my own, with dreams of him looking me in the eyes and saying, "You're welcome."

I'm seeing these dreams into fruition. I'm seeing this plan through, it's my objective, my telios, and come hell or high water I'm getting to Washington D.C....

...And here's the high water part.

It's raining. I pump the brakes to keep from hydroplaning, as Newton's Law reminds me that I've got over half a ton of restaurant equipment on the bed of the truck I'm borrowing.

I navigate the roads, get home, catch a shower, grab my ticket and jet to the train station.

I get to the Amtrak late. Just in time to discover my train is running late as well. Fortune smiles on me and I wink back coyly.

9/26/09 : 3:44am
It is impossible to sleep. The woman next to me is on her laptop and every time she catches me sneaking a glimpse of her screen she turns it away. I'm pretty sure she's a spy or a terrorist or a jerk. After awhile I loose my patience. I stand up and excuse myself, diving for the two empty seats catty-corner to ours. Sprawled out over the funk of decades-old upholstery, the train rocks me to bed. My eyes rest but my body's wide awake, ready to tackle tomorrow.

9/26/09 : 8:05am
I'm scared of pigeons. They're so aggressive. I'm sitting on the steps of the Capital building drinking a caramel machiatto so expensive I had to charge it to a credit card, and this pigeon keeps starring at me like I owe it something. A squirrel the size of a cat comes and shoos it away. On the horizon I see the National Book Festival. Hundreds have already started to gather. I'm in a moderate rush, knowing the author I've come to see is, when compared to novelist like John Grisham and James Patterson, only marginally successful. Diaz is a blip on the festival's radar and I'm sure to be one of the first to meet with him. So I slurp my coffee slow, and observe. There is a certain sense of synergy, a diplomatic air of affluence and pomp that lends itself to an event like a celebration of books. Making my way to the center of the festival on the giant lawn sandwiched by the largest museum(s) in the world, my chest swells with pride. I'm apart of this energy, it's a part of me. It's good to be home.

9/26/09 : 9:26am
I am first. Not second or third, first. I will be the first person at the National Book Festival to speak with Junot Diaz and get a signed copy of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Unfortunately, Diaz is not scheduled to appear until 12:30pm. Hours pass, I roll through the time cycling back between reading a book by Orson Scott Card, Ender in Exile, and scanning over the names of all the writers at the festival. Overly enthusiastic fans try to bait me with idle chit-chat but I have trouble making small talk. I can't help but sneer at them as if they were the "Other Woman." My posture screams, "He's mine!" As I expected the other lines dwarf ours. Judy Blume, David Baldacci, Grisham and Patterson are big favorites but I'm surprised to see how many people have lined up to get a shot taken with Paula Deen. The writers move among the crowd freely, not having to worry about being mauled like rockstars. They all seem, for the most part, pretty down to Earth. Michael McConnell and Nicholas Sparks are shooting the breeze about 10 feet from me and I resist the urge to strike-through their conversation and gush about how awesome they are to be able to write and get paid for doing it. To me they are rockstars.

9/26/09 : 12:30pm
I see Diaz. He emerges from the crowd like a sheep stepping out of fog. He's dressed down in a hoodie, jeans and sneakers. He could have been standing next to me in line for the port-a-potty and I never would have noticed him. One of the Event Staffers tells me I can approach him.
We shake hands.
"Hello, I'm Junot."
I hand him my copy of his book and my notebook. He snatches both playfully. He puts his book aside for a moment and flips through mine.
"I wanted to thank you for helping me find my creative voice," I say. He smiles and signs the title page of his novel. I get nervous. "I'm sorry. I didn't know what to have you write in the inscription."
"What's you name?"
"Donald Quist."
Thrusting the books back to me: "Here you go, Donald. 'For your Art.' Goodluck, my brother."

9/26/09 : 3:36pm
I smile broadly as John Irving tells the crowd, "Writing is like wrestling, you've got to keep practicing the same stupid move over and over again until you get it right." I feel accomplished. I met Diaz and got a book signed by Steven Kellogg for the Director of my library, Alexa Bartel. I've spent the early part of the afternoon enjoying the exhibits and demonstrations. I'll spend the rest of it listening to guest speakers in the Festival tents. The Library of Congress has put together a wonderful spread with presentations that nurture a love for reading but encourage information literacy. I've met tons of people, including a media specialist from Florence County Library. Today is a good day.

In a few hours I'll board my train home. I'll try to sleep but my mind will keep drifting back to the book in my lap and how it felt to be validated by someone I admire. I'll try to ignore the fact that my skin feels electric, buzzing with the thought of how close I am, how fortunate it is to work a job that allows me to immerse myself in the work of my favorite authors. Every time I check out a book, every day I type another word, I get another step closer to where I want to be.


  1. You are where you want to be. Really enjoyed this visit to the book show. The first time I heard of it was from a librarian who was in the same conference I was. She brought back lots and lots of books from the Festival and could not get them all back on the plane; she shared. That was when I was introduced to Karin Slaughter, a novelist with interesting law enforcement characters. You need to tell me more about your guy -- I have not read him and I get the feeling I should.

  2. Donnie, you made me feel like I was right there with you. You are a gifted writer. And Island of the Skog sits proudly on my book shelf. Thanks for getting Kellogg to sign it.

  3. Donnie, I really enjoyed reading this. You really do have a way with words, DQ. Keep it up!