Arts Desk

The National Book Festival Is Four Months Away. Get Cracking.

Yesterday the Library of Congress disclosed the long list of authors who are scheduled to appear at this year’s National Book Festival. For the second straight year it’ll run for two days, Sept. 22 and 23, bringing big names in fiction (mass-market and literary), history, YA, graphic novels, poetry, children’s books, and more to the National Mall. If you haven’t read anything by some of the biggest luminaries on the slate, you have only four short months to catch up. Herewith, a guide.

Philip Roth

Prestige Factor: Roth has pretty much run the table on every major literary award worth mentioning—the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle award, the PEN/Faulkner, the Pulitzer—and he’s the only living author whose books are enshrined by the Library of America. What he’s missing, as everybody who profiles Roth will tell you, is a Nobel Prize. Things could get awkward if he bumps into Mario Vargas Llosa at the green room buffet table.

Can You Catch Up?: Impossible; he’s written more than two dozen novels and a clutch of nonfiction books. Diving into his dodgier shorter works won’t give you a very good snapshot of his career, though slim books like The Dying Animal and Everyman are minor masterpieces. To get the full effect of his aging-horndog-tormented-Jew-knowing-and-black-humored-observer-of-America’s-ongoing-intellectual-and-social-collapse M.O., direct your attention to fuller novels like American Pastoral (soon to be a major motion picture) or Sabbath’s Theater.

Bluffing-at-Parties Line: “Whatever. They’re all about Philip Roth’s penis anyway.”

Robert Caro

Prestige Factor: America’s preeminent biographer has spent nearly four decades working on the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson; only now, with this year’s publication of the fourth volume, The Passage of Power, has LBJ ascended to the presidency. The book’s arrival has inspired a host of profiles that a) showcase the dogged devotion he brings to his work and b) give him a soft-focus, Mad Men-ish aura. Did you know he puts on a suit and tie and goes to an office every morning, even though he works for himself? And that he still uses an old-school typewriter? And tacks outlines on corkboards? When our grandchildren ask us how people survived without the Internet, we'll show them Robert Caro profiles.

Can You Catch Up?: Unlikely. The corpus of the LBJ project so far runs to approximately 3,500 pages. The Power Broker, the biography of urban planner Robert Moses he wrote before pursing the LBJ project, is more than 1,300 pages in itself, and that’s not counting the 350,000 words that his editor insisted he cut out of it.

Bluffing-at-Parties Line: “No, but I'm all caught up on his tweets.”

Marilynne Robinson

Prestige Factor: In the eyes of many, America’s finest living novelist, and perhaps the only writer on religion whom hardcore atheists can read without exploding with rage. Her three unaffected but emotionally dense novels—Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home—are essential books about faith, the heartland, and family that are free of the filmy goo of politicized verities that have stuck to those words in the past three decades.

Can You Catch Up?: Yes, but it’s harder than it looks. Those three novels will defy being sped through, and completists will also want to find her new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. (Excerpts from many of its pieces are online.)

Bluffing-at-Parties Line: Look, would it kill you to quit bluffing at parties and actually read a book for once?

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