We Are All Friends At Bookfest

At Bookfest—the National Book Festival held each year in DC—everyone is your enemy. You learn this early on, once they announce who will be there, what times the authors are set to sign their books, and especially on the Metro Trains, as you ride underground towards the National Mall and eye every potential obstacle. The elderly couple looking at a map, a mother and daughter taking out their recently purchased books still with the receipt inside them, and that college student with the scruffy beard listening to his I-Pod nonchalantly while holding a hardcover, but you know he's thinking the same thing: everyone here is after what I want. As the train pulls into the final station, everyone rushes out, waits in line as the tourists struggle with their tickets, and go up the escalator to see erected tents, labeled loudly—First Aid, Information, CSPAN—but those of us who are smart use the stairs instead. Those of us who are smart don't mingle. We wait in line.

This year I had gotten a couple of galleys from work and a signed galley is an expensive galley, or so I'd like to think. I would also like to think that it might strike up a conversation with the god-like authors who took so much of their time to come here to meet their fans. As in: Oh, how did you get this. I'd answer. Did you like it? I lie and say yes. Etc, etc. We become best of friends and I'll even post the picture of us fist bumping on Facebook. But this only in a perfect world.

In this world, you are greeted with long lines—three of them to be precise—waiting for New York Times Bestselling Author (a.k.a. literary crack cocaine distributor) James Patterson. I hate James Patterson. Not that I need to explain. He is worst than the candy you find during check out. His writing is emptier than the calories in a Snicker's bar. He is looked down upon like so by those literary snobs like me who say—You know, you can't end each chapter with a cliffhanger, it doesn't pace right, or You know, a chapter can't be a 1/2 page long—but it's more likely that we wished we could make money like him because—God, we know we don't want to write like him.

And we keep silent. We say how much we like him; that we loved his last novel, even though we know it's overpriced. (28 freaking dollars for nothing more than a list of food the main character eats!). We—literary snobs—get along with those who think Mr. Patterson is fine the way he is. We—literary snobs who are also bibliophiles—wait in line to get these books signed, because they are part of a popular history and we know that galleys can sell very high. We wait until there are five or six lines until they have to cut it off from a Filipino woman who came too late so she tries to hand us off one of her books to get it signed. Her arm waves "Max," a teen sci-fi thriller with an ominous cover in the air, yelling "Please!" until security comes along and drags her out saying "Ma'am, you can't do that."

And you think "Good, one less person to deal with," but it is sad. And the line moves, quicker than you expected until you are the next one in line, and you see a short, plump, hunched-back man behind the New York Time Bestseller and he doesn't say a thing and you ask yourself does he realize he's short, plump, hunched-back and a bad writer. But he signs that book and it doesn't matter that it looks like "J-Matter," you got it and you're on to your next autograph because you're a bibliophile and you smile because you are at home with other bibliophile.

Bookfest is equivalent to Mecca. The big names come here. The ones we've been reading all year. The signed book is the prize. But it's also the talking. Reading is, by tradition, a solidarity activity. In Solidarity Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (ISBN: 1890951331), Thomas Laquer argues that the invention of mass-produced books also brought the fear of immoral activities, such as masturbation. What else does one do while reading a book with one hand? You have to question all those painting with women reading by themselves—with one hand! Maybe that's why we like reading, it's mental masturbation. But reading doesn't always have to be alone. Bookfest is the evidence. The lines at Bookfest are the testament. People don't stand alone. They talk.

"Did you bring both books for him to sign?"

"I love his books; I hope he signs both."

"I teach his books in class. His work has a very unique tone. A voice."

"I don't know how to say his name...Ju-Not?"

The conversations and the talkings show that though we are enemies—rushing in line to get autographs, coming from different places, having different theories on what qualifies as (good) literature—the act of reading creates a temporal friendship. You talk about why you love the author. You talk about his/her work. You go through the emotions you do when you read. This dialogue even continues with our literary gods, if they are up to it. Junot Diaz was up for it. Standing in front of the table, he leaned back and smiled. And when you walked up to him he says "Hi," and introduces himself and talks about the weather and you say that you loved his book and you've just finished reading it for your class and he talks more and at the end of the conversation he says he likes your shirt and that his nuts are freezing—True story.

A Harvard professor called James Patterson, a product that talks. Other writers are people who happen to become a product of the book selling industry. And despite that, they still fall in love with books. They are in love with words. They thrive around our kind, their kind—bibliophiles.

But then again, it's all temporal. Temporary.

It rains. The tents go down. And you go away with only memories of that time you met Junot Diaz and he liked your shirt or that time you heard John Irving speak from just a meter away or that time when you and another fan came into Sabiha al Khemir's tent because it was soaking wet outside and she asked you where're you from.

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