As I stood on the National Mall, between the Capitol building and the Washington Monumentwell, to be precise, between the "Biography and History" tent and the "Fiction and Imagination" tent I could only think of a line once written about Walter Johnson, the great Washington Senators pitcher, after a losing game late in his career: "There was a spirit of the dying gladiator in the air."
What was I doing at the National Book Festival in Washington,D.C. on October 4? Mostly, I was plugging my book. No, I hadn't been invited by the Library of Congress or Laura Bush, the event's sponsors. My book hadn't been reviewed by the Washington Post or the New York Times. (But I have been reviewed here.) And, no, I'm not exactly David Baldacci, Michael Beschloss, Robert Caro, or Walter Isaacson, all of whom were at the festival and all of whom had standing-room only crowds in their tents.
I am the author of Damn Senators, a baseball book published by a small publisher in the spring. I had come down to the festival with a stack of flyers and a couple free copies of my book. I was crashing the party, a carny barker at a five-star wedding.
Yet I felt no rush of adrenaline, no charge at storming the Bastille. I could not conjure up any romance about being an outsider. That would have been a kind of self-aggrandizing fantasy that was indistinguishable from the smugness, the phoniness, of the people around me, the cream of the ultra-liberal reading public of the Beltway. The truth was I felt enervated, yet somehow relieved, like a runner approaching the end of a marathon. I probably I have one more book left in the bank, and whenever the thing gets published (it's about the greatness of Catholicism, so the publishers aren't burning up the phone lines trying to get ahold of me) that will be it. I will be out of journalism and the writing life. Most likely. I don't say this with self-pity or rancor, but with real relief. No more living with mom. No more bounced checks and lost health insurance. No more computer snow-blindness.
And no more literary readings! Not that I ever went to them, but even the thought that I wouldn't even be in the same universe where such things take place was a delight. People who run bookstores and go to book readings are, as the great Catholic theologian Deitrich von Hildebrand said in another context, "souls without poetry." The National Book Festival was a perfect example of that. "Book people," as they like to call themselves, are some of the most self-satisfied, narrow-minded ideologues this side of the Ba'ath party. They were all rushing around the Mall with their book bags, gray beards, gaudy fleece outwear and 1960s politics, worshipping the false idol of The Book and congratulating themselves on their own perspicacityalthough they lack the sexy swagger of the truly confident. With the truly confidente.g., Governor Arnoldthere is always a sense of danger that comes with taking chances. Not with this crowd. If Dr. Frankenstein wanted to create an army of zombies and had only NPR to base his model on, it would have resulted in the throng I was in the middle of. My Brooks Brothers attire was the most radical thing about the entire event.
And if I thought I could get some love from C-Span, I would have been smarter to stay home. The woman from "Book TV" was interviewing Walter Isaacson, author of a new bio of Benjamin Franklin. I wanted to get on C-Span and meet Isaacson, so after the interview ended I approached him and offered my hand. He said something sharply that I couldn't understand.
"What?" I asked.
"I'm still on the mic," he hissed, pointing to his waist. There was a microphone on him.
They were still on air, and the crew was following him as he went to his book signing. Whoops!
I fell away and tried to disappear. But as Isaacson was walking across the field, he suddenly remembered me. He turned around to make sure that this time C-Span had indeed stopped shooting, and looked around until he saw me. He came back. I introduced myself and gave him a copy of my book. He smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. Couldn't have been a nicer guy.
That was one of the two high points. The low point came about 20 minutes later, when I caught up with C-Span again. Connie, the host, was walking towards the History and Biography tent, the camera crew behind her. It didn't look like they were on. "HEY C-SPAN!" I hollered.
One of the techies whipped around like a panther. "SHHHHHHH!" she hissed. They were shooting again.
I waited until they were done then sheepishly approached again and gave Connie a flyer for my book. "You have to help the poor writers, too," I chirped, offering a big smile.
She gave me an irritated fake half-laugh and disappeared into her trailer, which was in front of the C-Span school bus. I got the message: "Kid, please, David Maraniss and James Patterson are here."
I retreated to the media tent in hopes of drumming up some publicity. And it was there that I saw Julie Andrews up close. She was being interviewed for a new children's book, and about 200 people were in line to get her autograph. I pressed up against the rope. The woman is stone gorgeous, and only Shakespearean metaphors can do her justice. She is the fair sun, the glorious moon, whatever. She takes your breath away. I must have looked back a dozen times as I walked away.
I decided to go home. People were bogged down with books and so much other junk that I couldn't get them to take any flyers. I did give one to R.L.Stine, a terrifically nice guy. Then I stopped in to listen to the historian Michael Beschloss talk about his book, The Conquerors. Beschloss is the quintessential Washington writer: well-connected, adored by the Post and NPR, and insipid as the day is long. He finished his talk and I was about to escape the dreaded Q and A"I must admit that Roosevelt's suberfuge surprised me insofar as he was a..." blah blah blahbut then the unexpected happened: A scruffy looking crank got up and started rambling loudly about partial-birth abortion and Governor Arnold the Nazi making lamps out of human skin. Finally, something interesting! This was more like it!
He was quickly shut down. Of course, the p.c., independent-bookstore-patronizing, PBS-and-two-cats crowd began showering him with boos. "This is the history tent," Beschloss announced, "not the politics tent"as if the politics tent would have allowed it, either.
That was all I could take. As I left the grounds, I handed a flyer to a tourist, a large, middle-aged woman who obviously wasn't part of book crowd. "Poor writers need love, too," I said, pathetically. I tried to slink away, knowing how lame I sounded, but she wouldn't let me escape. "What?" she shouted after me, "A what writer?!"
"Poor!" I called back to her, picking up my pace.
She started laughing, a big Midwestern belly laugh. "Well, why don't you go home and practice. You won't be so poor!"
It was a royal kneecapping. But it was the most intelligent thing I'd heard all day.