I move to Washington D.C. in part to take advantage of the unending sea of new intellectual opportunities this city offers -- then I fumble away my first visit to the National Book Festival sponsored by my beloved Library of Congress. I could have spent the whole day on the Mall soaking up the festival, taking in the whole experience of it. I normally squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of events like this.
My bumbling started with my failure to clear my calendar for this morning. I had an appointment I could have changed but it was already, well, on the books, so I figured I'd just head down to the event and enjoy whatever struck me once I got there.
What a doofus.
The author I most wanted to see was scheduled to speak while I was at my other commitment. This denied me the chance to listen to historian Gordon S. Wood talk about his newest book -- The Purpose of The Past: Reflections on The Uses of History. I am still new to a lot of contemporary history written about the American Revolution because of my affection for all things antiquarian and original, but Wood is a writer I wanted to hear. No better way for me to start the festival than by listening to an accomplished writer talk about the uses of my favorite subject, history, that I'm so passionate about.
I missed his lecture but did intend to make it there in time to buy a couple copies of his book and get them signed. That's when I made one smart decision -- not taking the Metro. Wood's signing time ended at 12:30. I was already pressed for time and I couldn't take the chance that I'd catch a quick red line train from Takoma and an equally prompt transfer to the blue to get to the Smithsonian stop. I would have considered the eco-friendly route had more time been available. Instead, I threw my bike on my car and zipped to my office parking garage downtown and then raced over to the Mall.
I hitched the bike to a tree, ran to the book buying tent, gobbled up the books, and sprinted over to the signing area. I made it to him at 12:25 and got my prized signatures. Wood himself was not much in the mood to acknowledge his readers, though. Or at least not me.
I made several efforts to say hello while he was sitting right in front of me signing my books. He made no eye contact, didn't look up at any point, and just dutifully penned his name and inscription -- while looking around me, seeing only one other person remaining in line, and saying with glee that he was about done. I thanked him for taking the time to sign my books but he still didn't acknowledge me.
Kind of made me mad, to be honest.
I've never been to a book signing in which the author didn't even make eye contact with his readers as he signed. I had to bust my tail to get there and shell out the dough for the books; I wasn't looking for an invitation to his personal library to discuss the late 1700s over brandy, but a "hello" or "you're welcome" would have been nice. Word of mouth marketing is, after all, the best kind of publicity any author can get. Even if you are already a Pulitzer Prize winner.
I decided to try to give Wood the benefit of the doubt: He had been there for an hour. He's an old man and his signing hand had to hurt. It was a bit nasty outside, and it was lunch time. I told myself that I'd try not to let the personal slight affect my ability to read and enjoy the book.
Then it was back to the consequences of my poor planning.
I turn into a great big monster when I miss my feeding times. Or more like a salmon-starved grizzly bear in New Balance sneaks. I had to eat quickly and the only place around was the concession stand, which forced me to drop about 14 clams on a steak burger, fries, and, horror of horrors, a Pepsi. I normally walk out of any restaurant that sells Pepsi instead of America's number one fizzy beverage -- Coca-Cola. I knew a migraine would hit me if I didn't get my mid-day caffeine injection, though, so I had to swallow the Pepsi and hope I'd later find a Coke to wash out that tongue-repulsing taste.
Studying the schedule for the rest of the day, I realized I didn't really have it in me to hover around waiting for the other authors that might be interesting. Again, had I studied the schedule before today, I would have moved my morning appointment, gotten down to the Mall early, and settled in for the long haul knowing I could pop over to museums when there was not an author on stage that I wanted to hear. Probably would have brought a lawn chair or blanket for some book and tree cuddling.
I also would have bought multiple books in one trip through the book store part of the event. I could only grab the Wood books because I was racing against the clock, and the line at the Barnes & Noble checkout stand was mighty long. I didn't feel like going back in and hitting it a second time.
I was antsy at that point, and probably still a little annoyed by Wood. Didn't feel like experiencing that twice, either. So I passed on the Library of Congress pavilion and the chance to talk about preserving my own antiquarian books with a real professional. I whiffed on the chance to see Walter Isaacson, author of a book I read on Benjamin Franklin. I didn't get to hear Bob Schieffer, an old-school TV journalist and anchor whose rock steady and false-drama-free delivery I've long appreciated.
I missed the chance to learn about the life experiences of authors that would have been new to me, like Immaculee Ilibagiza, a woman from Rwanda who lost most of her family during a 1994 genocide. If I had gotten really crazy, I might have even left the history and biography pavilion and tuned in to other genres. (Anything is possible.)
Yes, I could have done all those things and more if I had only planned to attack the event the way I normally do. Instead, the guy who spends much of his free time camped out in the caverns of the Library of Congress tasted but a bite of what could have been one of the best meals I've had all year.
I know one" purpose of the past" is to provide guidance on not repeating mistakes, and I do know one thing for a fact: This doofus will be ready for the 2009 National Book Festival long before the tents go up next fall.