All weekend, I’ve been thinking about the Friday, Saturday and Sunday before 9/11. I had been invited to Washington to take part in the very first National Book Festival on the Mall and in the Library of Congress.
As many of you know, I have a weakness for Washington. It was my coming-of-age city. I met my husband at the Pentagon. I had enjoyed the city’s parks and museums.
But this was the first time I had been backstage, so to speak, at the Library of Congress. Thanks to Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Press, I was part of a small group that included Nevada Barr and Sue Grafton, a group that was given a private showing of several rare books: a 14th century Book of Hours on vellum, a 20th century copy of Roualt’s Circus, a unique copy of William Blake. I had chill bumps when I reached out to touch a book that Gutenberg himself had once touched.
That night, a hundred or so writers came back to the Library after closing hours for a cocktail reception in the rotunda and a formal dinner on the mezzanine level under that stained glass dome with its gilded frescoes of the greats of literature.
Afterwards, my dear agent and I strolled back to our hotel on that cool, early autumn night with stars blazing overhead. From my hotel window, I could see the clean white shaft of the Washington Monument bathed in floodlights.
Next day, all the authors and their spouses or friends were invited to the White House for breakfast. Dogs sniffed the buses for explosives and we had to go through a security check to prove we were on the invited list but it was all rather routine.
Later, our buses took us back to the LoC where we were issued badges that would get us past any security checkpoints, but that seemed even more pro forma. If you mislaid your badge, all you had to do was walk up to a docent, say you were an author, and you would be handed a badge that said “Author.” Tents had been set up on the Capitol grounds and readings, signings and panel discussions went on all day long. It was a blue sky, white marble day.
After dinner that night, we walked over to the Folger Library Theater for a production of The Pirates of Penzance and a lovely romping performance it was. As Barbara put it, “It was the perfect end to a perfect day—mindless, but not stupid.”
Next morning, it was back to the airport where I discovered John Hope Franklin at the same gate. He was gracious enough to pretend he remembered meeting me at an event in Durham and we had an interesting half-hour talk till they called our plane. He told me he was up to the mid-50’s in his autobiography and was writing about the time he tried to buy a house near Brooklyn College. (The white man who opened the door took one look at Dr. Franklin’s black face, went into the kitchen and took a good belt of whisky, then came back and asked if he’d like to see the house.)
That Sunday morning encounter felt like the capstone to a lovely, civilized celebration of literature, freedom of the press, and American democracy.
On Tuesday, our world changed forever.