Back to the future: America celebrates its rich history in books

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 25 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

In June the Library of Congress announced "Books That Shaped America," an 88-volume exhibition that continue through Sunday.


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It's a warm and muggy autumn afternoon in Washington, D.C., as James Billington steps onto the Family Storytelling Stage at the 2012 National Book Festival. He is here to do a reading from "Where the Wild Things Are," the seminal children's book by the late Maurice Sendak.

Billington wears a preppy shirt-tie-blazer ensemble. Seated in a cartoonishly oversized red chair, in front of the grinning redheaded pixie with butterfly wings that visually dominates the stage's backdrop, his formal air feels out of place.

But looks can be deceiving, and in this case reality strays far from perception. Because Billington is not just the Librarian of Congress — a job he's held for 25 years — but also a co-chair of the National Book Festival Board.

In other words, James Billington fits right in — and it's no mistake he is here, now, with "Where the Wild Things Are" in hand. The scene bespeaks Billington's determination to make the National Book Festival as kid-friendly as possible and celebrate the role of books in shaping America. And with the publishing industry facing an uncertain future while the Department of Justice aggressively pursues price-fixing claims against Apple and two of the "Big Six" book publishers, the festival's record-setting growth and grass-roots emphasis is happening at a critical juncture in the evolution of America's love affair with books.

An uncertain future

Earlier this year, the Department of Justice filed a civil antitrust lawsuit against Apple and five of the "Big Six" book publishers for what amounts to price-fixing of e-books. The Justice Department alleged that Apple and the publishers conspired to prevent online retailers from discounting e-books — a clear attempt to undercut Amazon's strategy of underselling competitors to secure a larger slice of the e-book marketplace.

Three of the publishers quickly settled, but two — Macmillan Publishers and Penguin Group — joined Apple in asserting they had done nothing wrong. A trial is scheduled for June in a U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

When the litigation first commenced in April, The Wall Street Journal summed up the high stakes: "The lawsuit upends an industry already undergoing wrenching change as printed books give way to electronic books that can be transmitted anywhere in seconds. Publishers want to keep their role as gatekeeper and ensure that e-books are profitable."

The future of book publishing may hang in the balance, but the need to cultivate young readers who can become the critical thinkers and book buyers of tomorrow remains constant. In that context, then, the kid-friendly National Book Festival occupies a unique place in the public square — different in size but similar in purpose to the thousands of school book fairs and youth-literacy outreach efforts that take place all over the country every year.

"Kids who are just getting started learning to read are very important," said Library of Congress spokeswoman and National Book Festival project manager Jennifer Gavin. "Because those are the readers of the future."

Kid-friendly affair

More than 200,000 attended the 2012 National Book Festival on Sept. 22-23. This year's event attracted a record 126 authors for readings and presentations, according to Gavin.

"Particularly on Saturday, we saw the pavilions fill up very early in the day and get overfilled to the point where we had standing-room-only in almost every pavilion," Gavin told the Deseret News.

Speaking recently to the Washington Post about the National Book Festival, Billington said, "With every year, this event becomes more and more kid-friendly." Gavin echoed her boss's sentiment, and illustrated the point by referencing the decision of festival sponsor Target to launch a pavilion in 2011 called the Family Storytelling Stage.

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