Many readers of fiction have an intense relationship with the authors they love. Eugenio Bolongaro describes this phenomenon as an “emotional closeness, a willingness to make oneself not only listen to the language of the author but also be hospitable to it.” In his 1947 book-length essay, What is Literature, Jean-Paul Sartre observed how reading involves “a pact of generosity between author and reader.”
On Saturday I visited the 2009 National Book Festival. This annual outdoor event is sponsored by the Library of Congress and is held on the grounds of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a space sometimes referred to as “America’s front lawn.” It is a grand public platform for the display of emotional bonds between readers and authors.
Among the seventy or so writers signing books at this year’s Festival was the novelist John Irving. I brought with me a copy of the The World According to Garp — the very same copy I read in April, 1979, when the book first came out in paperback. Reading Garp back then struck me like a punch to the solar plexus. (My apologies to Irving acolytes for using a boxing simile when describing a book infused with the sport of wrestling.) Garp is one of the few novels I’ve read twice. John Irving is one of the few authors whose new books I eagerly await.
Hundreds of ardent readers were in line hoping for an audience, however brief, with the author. Aside from Garp, the book I spied most often in people’s hands was A Prayer for Owen Meany. I was struck by how worn (meaning, well-read) most of these books were. People were not here to get a valuable signature added to a mint condition book — something they could then sell on eBay. No, these readers had come with purer desires: to place a cherished object into the hands of its begetter; to ask for that object to be recognized and certified by its creator; and to retrieve the now-blessed book for renewed cherishing.
Author and reader are typically separated by time and space, but on this day those forces collapsed into a moment of connection.
As I joined the bright-faced, well-behaved crowd, I recalled a political opinion (this is Washington, D.C., after all) expressed by William F. Buckley, Jr., who said, “I am obliged to confess that I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” What I was thinking was this: if I were allowed to introduce a third choice, I select a government led by National Book Festival attendees. Yes, that might make me one of the governors. (No system is flawless.)
The hour from noon until 1:00 was given over to John Irving’s book signing event. Time expired, leaving the back half of the line, me included, unrequited. But a few minutes before Irving departed (he kept at his task an extra 15 minutes) I was able to maneuver my way to a vantage point close to where he was greeting the last lucky cohort of book-clutching readers. Where I planted my feet turned out to be a charmed perspective from which to capture a remarkable sight. I had come to the Festival this day expecting to leave with an inked name on a yellowing page. What I brought back, instead, is a video record of the aftermath of those final moments of connection between author and reader.
Watch as each reader, spontaneously, in his or her own fashion, expresses joy: