‘A Celebration of the Written Word’

Eileen Martz relaxes with a find from the Friends of the Library Used Book Sale.

My radio alarm sounded at 8 a.m. on Saturday, May 21 and woke me to the mellow voice of NPR’s Scott Simon quoting from a graduation speech he delivered.

“How nice,” I thought, “I’ll be able to tell him this afternoon how much I liked the piece.”

It’s true. I was headed for the Gaithersburg Book Festival where I could speak to Simon directly at the book-signing after his presentation on, “Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other: In Praise of Adoption.”

This was my second visit to the free event, and I knew what a marvelous day I had in store. The festival is an impressive, large-scale event that brings together everything a book-lover (or parent of a future book-lover) could hope for. In only its second year, it is putting Gaithersburg on the national literary map.

The festival designers call it “a celebration of the written word and its power to enrich the human experience [by fostering] an interest in reading, writing and literary conversation.” This lofty vision turns out to be down-to-earth fun!

This year over 75 authors were there to read from and discuss their books, but also give listeners insights on a writer’s life. There were free seminars for budding writers, panel discussions about the future of the book, used book sales, new book sales by Barnes & Noble, and a coffee house with live music and poetry readings.

Children’s activities abounded; booths with arts and crafts, games, new books exhibitors and musical stations were scattered throughout. At lunch, my dimpled 3-year old tablemate told me, “I saw a fairy!” (I verified her claim later when I caught sight of the middle-aged woman with wings and a wand at a vendor’s table.)

The day was spectacular. The sun made a brilliant appearance and created a shady wonderland amongst the huge old trees on the grounds of Gaithersburg City Hall. Food vendors cranked up early, so from 10 a.m. on, the air was filled with the aroma of crabcakes and pizza and hot dogs. Whole Foods also had a booth for those with more caloric restraint.

There were eight large tents set up for author presentations with literary names the likes of the Dashiell Hammett Pavilion. I walked by tent after tent brimming with listeners focused on their speaker — Alex Berenson, talking about his latest spy thriller, “The Secret Soldier”; Edward Dolnick, discussing “The Clockwork Universe,” his account of early science; and Mary Downing Hahn, delighting young readers with her spooky new tale, “The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall.”

Every attendee would give you different highlights of the day. For me, one was Paula McLain’s presentation on her new best-selling “The Paris Wife” that was filled with details gleaned from massive research. I think I noticed a tear in her eye when she read from a letter young Ernest Hemingway wrote to a friend after being jilted by Agnes, the army nurse who was his inspiration for a character in “A Farewell to Arms.”

“She doesn’t love me, Bill,” McLain read. “She takes it all back. A ‘mistake.’ … I can’t be bitter because I’m just smashed.”

I also delighted in best-selling author Elizabeth Berg’s talk about her newest work, “Once Upon a Time, There Was You.” She’s a hoot! She started out as a singer in a rock band; learned everything she knows about people, love, loss and relationships from her career as a nurse; and buys her purses from an online site she shared with her appreciative audience.

This year I was prepared to make the most of my visit, unlike last year when I was overwhelmed by the grand scale of the event and was faced with a dizzying array of options, each one more appealing than the next. So this April I went on the Gaithersburg Book Festival website (gaithersburgbookfestival.org) ahead of time and checked through the list of authors speaking about their works. It was exciting to see so many names I recognized — they were at the top of my list. Then I added the panel discussion “The State of the Book” and seminar “Five Tips to Promote Your Book Before It’s Published.”

So a plan for the day emerged, and I could fill it out with some new writers I wanted to learn more about.

The website shows feedback from past writers, too. Seasoned authors marvel at the “well-conceived and well-managed” event. A 2010 presenter, sportswriter and commentator, John Feinstein, wrote, “I wanted to throw some kudos today in the direction of the people who ran The Gaithersburg Book Festival. … [It] was run with precision timing.” Children’s author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor called it “an idyllic small-town festival.”

I, too, want to “throw some kudos” to the forces behind the festival. Gaithersburg City Council member Jud Ashman is the creator, director and driving force of the festival. He had a vision for a major book festival to be held in Gaithersburg, and it has come to pass in monumental form. He is ably assisted by the Gaithersburg City staff, especially the organizational skills of Carolyn Crosby and Nansie Wilde, and tons of volunteers.

Guys, I’m hoping to be there next year. I am a huge fan!