Here’s some breaking news for you: books are really popular these days. Take a look around the shelves of any store, even your neighborhood five-and-dime, and you’re bound to find copies of the latest thrillers by V. C. Andrews and Ann Rule. Even though this age is more wireless, globalized, and “l33t” than ever before, people can’t seem to stop reading.
With this in mind, we decided to travel to Washington, D.C. to cover the 10th annual National Book Festival. Since more than 70 of the nation’s best writers were appearing at this event, we knew we were in store for a big scoop. With so many storytellers on hand, how could we fail to compose the story of the century of the week?
We arrived at the National Mall around noon and found ourselves surrounded by thousands of professional readers. These readers, most of whom hold day jobs in exciting and fast-paced fields like elementary education and library science, had converged on Washington to meet the great geniuses who give meaning to their empty lives.
These professional readers were content to swelter and sweat under large tents while the literary lions droned on about the sob stories that had inspired them to write their latest masterworks. As soon as the floor was opened for questions, the professional readers leaped to the task. Many of them, however, became so nervous that they proved unable to do anything beyond mumbling some nigh-incomprehensible statement about how much they loved that particular author’s most popular book.
One reader videotaped an author’s response to his question, an action that seemed very meta to us. By way of aside: It seems that seeming meta is one of the hippest things a person can do, especially if he or she is aware of how totally un-ironic and un-meta seeming that way can seem.
The authors gave their talks under tents with section titles like “Contemporary Life,” “Fiction and Mystery,” and “History and Biography.” Translated into terms applicable to the way we read now, these mean, respectively, “Oprah’s Book Club,” “Can be Adapted into a Movie Starring Ashley Judd,” and “Something About George Washington and/or Nazis.”
One of the things that struck us at the NBF was how little we knew about current fiction. According to their presenters, Jonathan Safran Foer and Jonathan Franzen are two of our nation’s top novelists. We knew the latter through his award-winning conflict with Oprah and the 150 or so pages of The Corrections that we had once tried to read. The former had written Everything is Illuminated, a book that became a movie starring the guy who played Frodo Baggins.
Foer explained how he had moved beyond his role as a hipster author to become an advocate for a vegetarian diet. Given our instinctive abhorrence to anything described as local, sustainable, or lacking in meat, we tuned him out. He also told some sort of implausible-sounding anecdote about a plucky relative, which triggered wild applause. This convinced us that we should start writing down our own implausible-sounding anecdotes about plucky relatives, since wild applause is the one thing that is missing from our life.
After a cogent, polished presentation by Scott Turow, we left the NBF and began to contemplate the state of American literature. Our thoughts drifted to the opening of one of the most critically acclaimed books in recent memory, which goes as follows: “Through the small tall window the December yard is gray and scratchy, the trees calligraphic.” A “small tall” window? A “gray and scratchy” yard? What could any of that mean?
Meaning aside, its author is way richer than we are. So were all of the other featured guests at this event, which undoubtedly says something about something. We know it isn’t saying something about nothing, because that happens to be our job–and that’s no small tall order.