At National Book Festival, divergent American stories

The American Story is how the National Book Festival bills itself. At the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Saturday, all it took was a quick peek at the surnames of the many authors participating to realize how varied, rich, enmeshed and layered that story is.

Stavridis, Friedman, Herrera, Barnhill, Lu, Dyson, Saujani, Vance, Kitamura, DiCamillo, McDermott, Rice, Bohjalian. Those were just a few of the more than 100 authors who drew thousands of book lovers inside on an unseasonably cold and rainy early September day.

Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” was making her first appearance at the festival. Working on her book that went on to become a smash hit movie made her realize just how essential it is to contribute to the nation’s understanding of itself.

“America is built on story so this gave me an insight into how powerful it is to present your own story,” she said in an interview before her talk. “The American story is the theme of “Hidden Figures.” This is a story about African Americans, it’s a story about women, it’s a story about scientists. It is all of those things but it is a profoundly American story.”

A native of Hampton, Virginia who now lives in Charlottesville, Shetterly drew connections between the debate over removing Confederate statues and the feeling of absence that some Americans have of their role in America’s history.

“I think part of the reason why the energy around these statues is so strong has as much to do with what is missing as with what is present,” she said. “The narrative in America for African Americans has been slavery, Martin Luther King and Obama. And that is missing so much of the most important and most interesting and most American stuff in the middle. Who are we as Americans? Who does America belong to? What does an American look like? Story matters a lot and these questions shape so much of our public discourse.”

Few have told as much of the American story as historian David McCullough who, in a conversation with the festival’s co-chairman David M. Rubenstein, regaled the packed Main Stage audience with tales of everyone from Abigail Adams and Dwight Eisenhower to lesser known Americans who also stamped their imprint on the country, including Katharine Wright, the sister of Wilbur and Orville, without whom, McCullough said, her siblings might never have gotten their bird in the air.

The author of 11 books and holder of 55 honorary degrees, McCullough said that he still writes using the same Royal typewriter he bought 50 years ago.

“Word processors go too fast and I don’t think that fast,” he said, explaining his weapon of choice. “And if you hit the wrong button you can lose a lot of work.”

There wasn’t much discussion of modern history, but two of his remarks drew large applause. First McCullough recalled a sentence that President John Adams wrote to his wife on his first night in the White House and Franklin Roosevelt later had carved above the fireplace in the State Dining Room: “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

And the crowd cheered too when McCullough said “None of our great presidents has ever been one who didn’t have any interest in history.”

Another large crowd at the Main Stage greeted J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” last year’s breakout memoir of a rough and ragged rural Ohio upbringing. Also interviewed by Rubenstein, Vance was funny and self-deprecating though somewhat circumspect when it came to exploring what writing the book had meant to him and what plans he might have in its wake.

Now a venture capitalist living in Washington, he was asked by Rubenstein if he would consider a run for public office.

“Well, I think we’re out of time,” Vance joked, but then went on to say he had become more cynical about the political process writ large while still finding reasons for optimism with some individual politicians. In other words, he didn’t answer the question.

If history and politics were the main draw at the Main Stage, elsewhere in the convention center the mishmash of the American story was being told by graphic novelists, poets, scientists, children’s story authors and young adult celebrity writers. The Washington Post is a charter sponsor of the event.

Alice McDermott, who lives in Bethesda, discussed her new novel about an order of nuns serving Irish Americans in Brooklyn. She wrote about nuns, in part, she told a packed ballroom, because “selflessness is a concept that I think is fading in the 21st century.” The book, “The Ninth Hour,” comes out this month.

The large turnout – organizers say tens of thousands were on hand – was balm for those who worry that serious and committed readers are a disappearing breed. McCullough offered sage perspective from the stage.

“If you ever get down about American culture just remember there are still more public libraries than there are Starbucks,” he said.

And for now anyway, that means there’s still more shelf space for American stories than Americanos.

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