By the Book
Just got back from the Texas Book Festival up at the Capitol; I still have corn from lunch stuck in my teeth. It’s a good time. If you’ve never been asked by the Capitol police to remove your elbows from the House Chamber’s balcony rail, you’ll get your chance, and if you haven’t heard about what was actually the first George W. biography to appear — an unnoticed, uncontroversial children’s book, published in April — there’s Mary Dade, a white-haired grandmotherly writer of children’s books. She’s set up a booth in one of the exhibition tents, a long row of white canvas along the Capitol grounds’ west edge.
A former librarian, Mary Dade’s now the Governor’s official kid-lit biographer. “When I asked him where his values came from, he almost jumped out of his seat,” Mary Dade says. “I’m from West Texas,” he said, “my values come from the people I knew in Midland.” As we talk, a woman in a frilly blouse and a significant cross around her neck stops, writes a check. I ask Mary Dade, how is her Bush bio different from the others? “Well,” she says, “I’m not an ex-felon.”
Down the way I see Horton Foote at the Barnes & Noble booth, working in the literary life’s most venerated (and desirable) assembly line: signing books. Foote’s the middle cog. To his left a clerk pulls a book from one stack and opens it, Horton scribbles his name on the title page, then a clerk on the right side restacks the book. Autographs, writers’ voices, insider info: the Book Festival celebrates these, everything the book as a physical medium can’t provide. Last summer I reviewed Foote’s memoir for the Observer, not understanding much why people favor him, but this afternoon he’s charmingly vulnerable, his rumpled white hair, his tie elegant and loosely knotted. Numbed by the work, he stares past the pages set before him, the tended stack on the right hand side teetering.
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, there’s no anxiety about the death of the book, and no digital media to be seen. Up and down the tent are cookbooks, romances, botanical encyclopedias, self-published memoirs, some famous books (such as The Story of Colors, written by Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, which garnered front page New York Times coverage for El Paso’s Cinco Puntos Press when their National Endowment for the Arts grant was rescinded) and others less known, like Mary Dade’s other major work, about Ada Byron, Lord Byron’s daughter, first computer programmer.
If you’ve never seen an electronic book, come next year. They won’t sell well, but you’ll want to hold its hot life in your hands to remind you why you prefer books, the flexing mass of bundled sheets’ affinity for each other, the gravid scrim of a promised intimacy.
For all its books and authors, the Book Festival waltzes around reading, assuming the fortitude of the literate public. It assumes that books matter to people because they know to read them, that when they’re back at home far from the glamour, they sit down and read. For pleasure. In the exhibition tents, a library kiosk exhorts, “Read, Read.” There’s a booth for a dyslexic foundation and an adult literacy group. Otherwise, no one reads or talks about reading. The Book Festival features acts of reading, but only insofar as writers perform their work and shoppers browse, not as ends in themselves. By reading, I don’t mean ABCs — I mean interacting with written language in ways that let you derive pleasure from the activity, and a fundamentally different pleasure than drinking or sex or eating or skydiving.
(There was, however, sex. At the romance writer’s panel, I was the only man in a packed conference room in the Senate extension. As I stepped in, best-selling romance novelist Lisa Kleypas was extolling sex. “No matter how much gratuitous sex you have, if you don’t have a good characters and a good plot, it’s not going to make the story good. And I have nothing against gratuitous sex, I’m all for it. The more sex, the better.” The room rang with appreciative titters.)
It seems to me that if we don’t assert the pleasure of reading, if we focus on literacy only as economic opportunity and some mark of social acceptability, we will doom pretty books to unexamined lives on shelves, even in post-Puritan America. Even in a nation full of content providers manque. In the exhibition tent I saw writing books; clubs and professional organizations for writers; audio tapes on how to write gripping plots, realistic characters, and Seinfeld episodes; ads for editors, proofreaders, and agents; and piles and piles of books — all of which boosts the health and morale of the Texas writer and the entire literary estate. But what about the health and morale of the Texas reader? The celebration of books blinds us to the fact that what we need are more smart, patient, critical readers. Writers and books: the world doesn’t need more reflection. It needs more readers to read (and re-read) what books there are. More action. If we knew how to read better, we wouldn’t write so much.
Literature and politics. It’s hard to keep them apart at the Book Festival; some people try, but the two themes keep crashing into each other. Sometimes they wield elbows; sometimes they gently rub. Earlier in the morning, Foote’s reading kicked off the day’s literary events. (A black tie banquet the evening before at the Austin Marriott at the Capitol had kicked off the Festival’s political events.) Hundreds of people packed the House Chamber, where the shutters were flung open, filling the room with light. In First Lady Laura Bush’s brief comments, she announced that last year the Festival, a benefit for Texas public libraries, had donated $230,000. Texas photographer Keith Carter launched into an introduction of Foote that more congratulated himself, then Robert Duvall stepped up, praising Foote. “I want the powers that be in Washington, D.C. to nominate Foote for the Kennedy prize,” Duvall said, adding, “no matter who’s in the President’s seat next year.” The chamber rang with appreciative applause.
With no words to rebalance the symmetry between art and politics and little to say about anything else, Foote began reading from Farewell’s first chapter. Watching the older crowd craning their necks to hear, I realized that unamplified voices declaiming and conspiring sound best in legislative chambers.
Literary prose, by contrast, gets acoustically abused, depending as it does on shifts of volume and intonation that the public address system muddles and shrouds. I also glimpsed Foote’s appeal. He doesn’t romanticize his home town of Wharton or gloss it up either, he simply validates your reasons for loving and missing your own hometown, shithole or not. In his world, what matters is that you love and remember a place. That’s why Foote loves the exile, the prodigal son, the closeted gay man — in his world, you can love a place so damn much, it doesn’t really matter why you’re not there.
Despite the poor acoustics, literature on the floor of the legislative chambers is a strange delight. Should feel more wicked than it does, but the writers seem so comfortable on podiums. Later in the morning I went to the “Unholy Trinity” panel, featuring Molly Ivins, Larry L. King, and A.C. Greene in the Senate Chamber, where the shutters were closed, the room dimmer. Unlike Carter and Foote who performed their Texanness unself-consciously in the sunshiny House, over in the Senate the dark Trinity took questions from the audience that made them reflect on their public roles as professional Texans. “You’d think I was John Wayne, you’d think I was a cowboy, the way I dress in New York City,” King said. Ivins, who distinguishes “up there” from “down here,” said she’d started out not wanting to mythologize Texas. “Now, I find,” she drawled, “that I’ve added to it.”
After a woman in the audience referred to “that old Texas all of us long for and miss,” Ivins quibbled that it hadn’t left, and added, “Well, honey, some of us are still trying to get rid of it.”
The irony of the Book Festival is, while you can’t get reading and writing to stand next to each other, the gymnastics of political appetites keep colliding into art. Mary Dade’s biogrape is running for president and his wife is honorary chairperson of the Festival, so that when a man in the audience complains that all we get for $60 million is a high gloss, Third-Wayish take on conservatism of the old-fashioned kind, it seems ungrateful, even rude; it’s like laughing out loud in church. Molly Ivins graciously acknowledges Laura Bush’s work to provide rural libraries with resources; Larry King rants about money in politics, the fat-cat politicians, the million dollar offices, “and I don’t know what we’re going to do about it.”
Then King told an anecdote about this new dance he’d seen performed at the literary gala the evening before. “Molly came up to me at the Governor’s mansion and said, ‘I’m doing a dance to avoid the Governor, I just finished a nasty book about him.” And I said, ‘Well that’s got to be pretty easy, because I think the Governor is dancing to avoid you too.” And as she started to leave — I was standing out on the porch — Bush was just inside greeting people who were leaving, and they stared at each other for a moment, and they chatted for just the briefest of spans. I swear they did a little half hug, but Molly denied it.”
Later, Molly Ivins confirmed the story (but not the dancing) by phone.
“I thought I was home free and clear, and I had gone to the front door without saying anything to him. And as I left the porch, there he was. It was not brilliant reparte. We grinned, or grimaced. ‘Ho ho, here’s my biographer,” he said, poking his elbow into my ribs. ‘But not your official biographer, ho ho,” I said, poking him back. The rumors of our embracing moved quickly — in the ten-minute walk between the mansion and the hotel, seventy people must have asked me if it was true.”
Michael Erard writes too much, dances not often enough, and reads just about enough.