Stories From Writers From the National Book Festival: A Reading List

Surrounded by thousands of people at the Washington Convention Center buying books from the Politics & Prose pavilion, taking pictures with Clifford, moving downstairs to sneak into a panel by Dav Pilkey or Louisa Lim or Cokie Roberts, and waiting in line to meet their literary heroes, I felt like I could levitate. I thought: These are My People—these people shoving through well-carpeted hallways to get coffee before sneaking into the back of a panel on books in translation or patiently sitting with their enthralled kids at a packed storytime session. We went to the National Book Festival for different things, but also the same thing: books and our love of them. Here are four essays and excerpts written by the authors I was lucky enough to see.

1. “No-Man’s-Land.” (Eula Biss, The Believer, February 2008)

I screamed when I saw the “Creative Nonfiction Panel” on the Library of Congress website. Eula Biss and Paisley Rekdal: what a pair. I quaked with excitement as Eula said, “We don’t have a great vocabulary around truth. We need about 27 more words there.” I nodded and mmhmmed like I was in church, because, well, I was. This is Eula’s titular essay from her first collection. It’s about Chicago’s Rogers Park Neighborhood and the dangers of buying into the pioneer narrative. It is beautiful. (Oh, here is a picture of me meeting Eula and Paisley. I am the excited one.)

2. “We Do Not Live Here, We Are Only Visitors.” (Paisley Rekdal, Along for the Ride, 2001)

During her panel, Paisley discussed the melding of genre in the context of creative non-fiction, which makes sense—she is a talented poet and essayist. Her latest book, Intimate: An American Family Photo Album, is a memoir made up of poetry, personal essay, photography and history. Here is an excerpt from her memoir, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In. She mulls on the (dis)similarities between herself and her mother on a trip to Taipei. (I encourage you to check out her poetry, too.)

3. “Mexicans in America.” (Richard Rodriguez, Cato Unbound, August 2006)

Richard Rodriguez has a long history with American public journalism, and this piece from 2006 on the Mexican immigrant “problem” still feels spookily relevant. (It also makes for an interesting companion to Biss’ piece.) While I don’t necessarily agree with everything Rodriguez says, he is an unconventional thinker and an undeniably great writer.

4. “The Bill of the Century.” (Clay Risen, The Morning News, April 2014)

My friend, Joe, a brilliant seminarian, accompanied me to the Festival (he took the picture of me, Eula and Paisley), and he chose our final author of the day: Clay Risen. Risen specializes in the details of the Civil Rights Act, and his enthusiasm for his subject was evident as he answered questions about his latest book, The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, and delighted at the archives he encountered during his research. This essay about the aforementioned legislation is as fast-paced as an action film.

Photo: The Library of Congress