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A few observations from Saturday’s National Book Festival on the Mall:

  • I’ve completely missed the boat on Terry Pratchett, who addressed an overflow crowd. Every time I’ve seen Pratchett’s books on somebody’s shelves, O’Reilly manuals weren’t far away; I haven’t read a sentence of the man’s work because I’ve been led to think they’re vaguely Douglas Adams-like, and Adams never did much for me. The guidebook to the fest says his books have sold more than 45 million copies, and the man clearly has a rabid fan base: There were long lines at the mic asking him picayune questions about his work, and one dude broke down in tears from being in the same general tent-space as his icon. More revealing of his cultlike status was the moment when somebody asked him why he decided to be a writer, and he responded, “I had no idea how to do anything else.” The room exploded in laughter—this was apparently a devastatingly funny riposte. I’m curious to figure out what the deal is, and fortunately Boing Boing is linking to a visual guide to Pratchett’s works. Unfortunately, it looks like a map of the Krebs Cycle.
  • Edward P. Jones, scheduled immediately after Pratchett, drew less of a crowd, but then he’s not quite the genial Chatty Cathy Pratchett is. Washington Post Book World editor Marie Arana lobbed a bunch of hanging-curveball questions designed to get him to expound at length, but his replies were mostly terse and minimal. Did critical success and the financial boost of a MacArthur “genius” grant change his life? No, not really. Can you talk about what you’re working on now? Not much—there’s one story I’m thinking about. When the Q&A portion arrived, Arana had to gently chide the crowd to walk up to the mic. What advice would he give to today’s D.C. high schools to encourage reading? Sorry, no clue.
  • As Bob Thompson pointed out, Joyce Carol Oates can bring the funny. As if to compensate for the general dreariness of her novels’ themes—her latest is a one-two punch combining the Holocaust and domestic violence—she’s affected a dry, almost Stephen Wright-like demeanor in front of the crowd. One audience member said she understood she had an interest in boxing, and could she expand on that? “Well, I wrote a book called On Boxing,” she said, dryly. “That may have given you a small hint of that.” It sounds bitchier written down than it does when she says it. Thompson didn’t write about her weirdest, funniest joke, though. She talked about Hitler and Stalin for a bit, then noted to the audience that somebody was holding a sign saying she had two minutes left. “Then they’ll machine-gun me,” she said.