Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Not Even for the Sake of Books

The National Book Festival is being held in Washington, DC, this coming Saturday. Sponsored by the Library of Congress and First Lady laura Bush, it's a significant event in literary circles, bringing together authors as diverse, popular, and respected as Neil Gaiman, E.L. Doctorow, John Irving, Donald Hall, Sue Monk Kidd, Bobbie Ann Mason, Buzz Aldrin, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Marcia Mullen, Diana Gabaldon, R.L. Stine, and Laurie Smith. Dana Gioia, the eloquent California poet, will be there. So will Lynne Cheney, whose most famous book is probably the lesbian Western she wrote years ago. (Brief bios of all these authors are available on the National Book Festival web site.)

These very fine writers will read from their work, speak, meet readers (an estimated 85,000 attendees), be interviewed by the Washington Post and other newspapers, and do all they can to promote reading and writing. It sounds like a lot of fun, even though John Irving did once observe that writers are not necessarily sparkling conversationalists: "Novelists in particular drag themselves around parties like gutshot bears." It's also a great honor to be invited.

At least one invitee, however, will not be present. The distinguished poet Sharon Olds refused the invitation from Laura Bush.

But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration.

What kept coming to the fore of my mind was that I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration that unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting "extraordinary rendition": flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.

So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it.

I don't fault the authors who are attending. But I am profoundly grateful for Sharon Olds, whose poetry I have long enjoyed, and who has so simply expressed the horror of the contrast between the civilized dinner table of the Bushes and their vicious, unconstitutional, and shameful policies.

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