Q&A: Do Books Still Matter?

When First Lady Laura Bush launched the National Book Festival six years ago, it hardly seemed controversial. But last year poet Sharon Olds refused the First Lady's invitation as a protest against the Bush administration's policies in Iraq. With this year's festival slated for this weekend, NEWSWEEK's Daren Briscoe spoke with Librarian of Congress James Billington about what's in store this year and why books still matter in the age of YouTube. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why have a National Book Festival?

James Billington: This country was put together by people who read books; we're the only culture in the world whose institutions were formed entirely in the age of print. The Internet is wonderful, but you don't get wisdom, judgment and selectivity on the Internet. A book is a little world of coherence, a conversation from one person to another. Books are sort of the sinews of civilization. We had 100,000 people on the Mall last year.

So how does your role change in the Internet age? Will books themselves become obsolete?

The role of the book is not going to be diminished or be made obsolete. People physiologically are still very attached to books and will go on producing books. We add without subtracting, and that's a very rare thing in human history. Libraries are very good at this; we don't throw things out. Everyone thought that when TV came along, radio would vanish, but it turned out that the radio was perfect for listening to in the car. So the older technologies will survive.

Books survived radio and television, but now you have hugely popular Web sites like YouTube that are completely image-driven and these online role-playing games. For the generation that's growing up with all of this, how will books compete?

It depends on whether we're serious about education in this country. Our Web site is pegged to the reading level of K-12, and we're going to have to rely on the fact that the culture will say, "You can't play games your whole life." We've got to provide a stimulus for people to learn, and we do that with things like documents that only a few people can see, like Jefferson's draft of the of Declaration of Independence, with corrections by Madison, Adams and Franklin. Kids are absolutely thrilled to see George Washington's homework, because it humanizes history. [William Butler] Yeats said that education is not filling up a bucket but lighting a spark, and you only get that spark in life through books.

Last year the poet Sharon Olds refused Laura Bush's invitation to the festival to protest the policies of the Bush administration. Have there been any similar protests this year?

It's a great rarity. A lot of people are invited to the festival who don't agree with the current administration's policies, but we don't have any restrictions placed on who we can invite. There may have been others, but I haven't heard anything. Last year an area near the site of the festival was chosen as the site for a political protest and rally, and when it ended, a lot of the protesters came over to the festival.

What do you think will be the biggest attraction this year?

I think maybe fiction. Mystery people are very intense, and they really get into the books, they love to have a chance to ask the mystery writer why the other guy wasn't the killer. But there are always several things going on simultaneously. We had [historian] David McCullough last year, Doris Kearns Goodwin this year and Khaled Hosseini this year. These are people who are very widely read, and you don't often get to hear them talk in front of an audience as literate and enthusiastic as the crowd we get at the festival.

What's the last book you read?

"White Apples and the Taste of Stone," the collected poems of Donald Hall . Itjust came out after I picked him [to participate in the festival]. I wanted to check to make sure the energy was still there in his poetry, and it still is.

Who's the biggest bookworm in Congress?

I couldn't possibly tell you. I can tell you that the number of graduate degrees in Congress and the number of people who've studied abroad, in my 32 years, there's been a great increase. There's a lot of interest, a lot of reading, a good deal of borrowing.

What about privileges? What can a member of Congress do in the Library of Congress that the average person can't do?

They can borrow books. Most people can't take books out. They have the services of the Congressional Research Service, which does professional research totally anonymously. They answered 900,000 inquiries from Congress and conducted a very large number of studies last year alone.

So you've never had to shush a member of Congress for talking too loud in the library?