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Mercer: 'Open a Book, Open the World’ — and rethink

Mercer: 'Open a Book, Open the World’ — and rethink

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Even in the best of times, news is rarely uplifting.

MARSHA MERCER

“If it bleeds, it leads” is more than a catchy TV phrase. News thrives on quarrels, conflict and chaos.

That said, we’ve all endured a particularly sad run of news of late.

The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks brought back the day’s horror and sorrow. The precipitous end of the war in Afghanistan made us question, well, everything.

The pandemic tightens its deadly grip on our country because too many of us refuse to take simple, free precautions. Our ailing planet repays us for our disregard of climate change with disastrous storms, floods and fire. Need I go on?

No wonder so many of us are disgusted, disheartened and dispirited.

Usually, when the world is too much with me, I go on vacation, but for various reasons, I haven’t taken a vacation in more than two years.

Fortunately, fall means festivals, and in a rare benefit of COVID-19, many festivals again are virtual, inviting us to attend wherever we are.

The National Book Festival, sponsored by the Library of Congress, continues through Sept. 26, with live author conversations online daily. Only two festival events are ticketed and in person at the library in Washington.

More than 100 popular authors from a range of fields are participating in various formats. Among them: historian Joseph J. Ellis, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, business magnate Bill Gates, historian Annette Gordon-Reed and journalist Isabel Wilkerson.

Children and teen authors include Kate DiCamillo, Traci Chee, the Richmond area’s Meg Medina, Lupita Nyong’o, Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas.

Dozens of videos are available to watch on demand, including with actor Michael J. Fox, social commentator Roxane Gay and Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro. Question-and-answer sessions with authors are scheduled as well.

New this year is a “Festival Near You” section on the festival website that shows local events. (See more at: loc.gov/events/2021-national-book-festival)

First lady Laura Bush brought the National Book Festival to Washington on Sept. 8, 2001, three days before the world utterly changed. That the festival has survived 20 years and evolved to meet today’s challenges is cause for celebration at a time when we don’t have many.

The theme this year — “Open a Book, Open the World” — celebrates the power of books to change our lives as well as our perspective.

“Books have been everything to me,” poet Amanda Gorman said in an interview with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden on a PBS special about the festival, available on the library’s site. Actor and child literacy advocate LeVar Burton hosts the special and also is a festival speaker.

Gorman became a worldwide sensation at age 22 last year when she read a poem at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. She knew she wanted to become a writer in third grade, when her teacher read Ray Bradbury’s novel “Dandelion Wine” to the class, she says.

Bill Gates says he was lucky as a child to have a grandmother who read to him and his sisters. He also credits summer reading contests at the local public library for encouraging his keen love of reading.

“An addiction to reading has been a key secret of my success,” Gates says.

If, like me, late September makes you feel like you should be back in school (cue Rod Stewart), the festival offers plenty of food for thought, reflection — and action.

Adam Grant, author of “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” says it’s important to avoid letting our beliefs harden into fossils.

“The problem is we live in a rapidly changing world, where we need to spend as much time rethinking as thinking,” he said on the PBS special. Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, suggests: “Don’t let your ideas become your identity.

“Look for reasons why you might be wrong, not just reasons why you might be right. Listen to the ideas that make you think hard, not just the ones that make you feel good.”

I haven’t read Grant’s book, but I plan to. In the meantime, his advice makes me want to give rethinking my beliefs a go. What about you?

Marsha Mercer writes from Washington. Contact her at marsha.mercer@yahoo.com.

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