Ruth: I’ve been to the Texas Book Festival three times as a featured author and every other time as a reader.  Even after a decade, it’s hard for me to explain the excitement I feel going to the festival.

More than anything, I know I will meet and see people like me.  They’re the ones who haunted the library the same way Ellen and I did as children and teenagers.  I can still see us going to the old, brick library in Wichita Falls on hot summer afternoons, stepping inside where it was cool and dim and smelled faintly of mildew and old paper.  I can remember that feeling of abundance I always had, coming home from the library with a large stack of books, trying to decide what I would read first.

Those fellow readers are the same people who sit in the festival audiences, leaning forward intently to hear writers read their works and talk about writing.  I don’t even know who I identify with or enjoy more — the other readers or the writers.  I always leave the festival refreshed and excited, knowing I’ve seen people who struggle with a blank screen every day and somehow make it work.  Sometimes the writers on the panels seem to be great fans of one another, supporting the others; other times, they barely tolerate one another and drum fingers till it’s their time to speak (one year, an author read her entire book; it was a kid’s picture book, but still.  I watched the other authors’ jaws drop with horror as she barreled through the whole damned thing while they sat there, speechless, as she hogged her time and theirs both).

I don’t think you ever feel the same way about an author or an author’s books after you’ve heard that person speak (for better or worse, but mostly for the better).  Today, I particularly loved Shelby Hearon’s comment that, “The ecstasy of writing is to lose yourself.”

The weather was gorgeous and crisp and I was surrounded by books and people who love books.  I can’t think of anything that makes me happier.

* * * *

In fact, the only negative of the day was trying to find a seat in a crowded session and narrowly avoiding a seat next to a woman I plan to avoid for the rest of my life.  Let’s call her Helga.

Several years ago, my husband was out of town and I went by myself to the wedding of one of his colleagues’ daughters.  It was a big celebration, we were fairly new to town and I didn’t see anyone I knew outside of the bride’s family.  Even at my age, I still feel awkward in a social setting where everyone knows everyone else and I know no one.

“Oh, hello!” a woman said to me.  She (Helga) seemed friendly enough and I was relieved to be talking to someone.  To anyone.

“Oh, hi!” I said.

Her smile froze.  “You don’t remember me, do you?”

“I guess not,” I said.

She introduced me to her husband.  “This is Ruth Pennebaker,” she said.  “Ruth spoke at our writers’ group last year.  We had lunch beforehand and had a really nice talk.”

I nodded, trying not to look like a complete idiot.

“Then, I saw Ruth at a Christmas party,” she continued.  “I thought she’d remember me, since we’d had such a nice talk.  But she didn’t!  She couldn’t even remember my name!”

I gritted my teeth and kept on smiling.  I was getting a sick feeling in my stomach.

“Well,” Helga said.  “I introduced myself to her again that night.  We had a good talk.

“But look!  You can tell she still doesn’t remember me — or my name!  This is the third time we’ve met and she still doesn’t know my name.”

I had that glassy-eyed grin people get when they’re seasick.  Helga told me her name once again, fixing me with a pair of eyes that singed.  You’d think — given the fact that it was such an upsetting experience that I left the wedding as quickly as possible — that I’d remember her name to this day.  But I promptly forgot it.  Permanently.

You know what?  People forget names sometimes, Helga.  They forget mine all the time.  So I introduce myself repeatedly to some of them and, amazingly, it doesn’t kill me.  But so help me, God, I’ll never remember yours.  You can count on that.

(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)

1 comment… add one
  • pjb Link

    Your description of trips to the library awakened in me memories of my own trips to our local library, a way to get away, like a travel agent for kids–and adults to I guess, but adults tend to travel to the same places, a trip to the bestsellers, a stop by favorite authors. Kids explore, venture out. The Old West. Outer Space. Dinosaurs. Ghosts.

    And, like you mentioned, there was the thrill of carrying home you stack of books, your tickets to lands exotic and foreign. And under the smell of mildew and old paper, the smell of the stories and the characters: Huck’s river, the wet earth of a vampire’s grave, the sweaty horse smell of the Black Stallion.

    And, before librarian came to know you, the question: That’s a lot of books. Are you sure you can read all of those befor they are due? And your answer, proud but maybe, secretly, a little sad, a little embarassed, that yes, you could finish them all, all the journeys, those ten stops in ten days.

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