The air was as clear as aquavit, blue sky over a green Los Angeles, thanks to the winter rains. A cleansing and cool breeze of sixty-eight degrees blew all day, which made for a perfect time to be outdoors at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
The weekend event, spread across UCLA's city of a campus in April of each year, is free, with booths made of white tents. Performance stages are plopped here and there. So much goes on: publishers promoting books, authors signing books, colleges publicizing writing programs, children's authors performing and reading for kids, cookbook authors cooking, kettle corn popping, sausages and burgers sizzling, lemonade vendors hawking, writers talking about ideas in many of UCLA's lecture halls, and everything to do with books.
For a city that seems to be better known for its movie studio tours and chainsaw juggling at Venice Beach, I'm always wide-eyed at this event. How fun to see that people still love reading.
Ann and I arrived early, before ten a.m., which gave us close parking. Any later than that, and you might have to be shuttled from a distant lot (remember that for next year). The attendance this year had to beat last year's 130,000. Many of the walkways were shoulder-to-shoulder with people. Clearly as a species, we're procreating well (the act of which is a subject of many a book).
We began the day with making a beeline to the poetry stage where we heard Kim Addonizio read and perform with her fabulous blues harmonica. She has a wit and sense of humor as do some of my favorite poets who include Billy Collins, Gerald Locklin, Charles Harper Webb, and Ron Koertge. One of her poems, "Night of the Living, Night of the Dead" from Tell Me dives into the logic of the walking dead, where the undead blindly stumble across a field and whack into a tree or fall through a doorway "like they're the door itself, sprung from its hinges / and slammed flat on the linoleum. That's the life / for a dead person: wham, wham, wham..."
After that, we strolled to one of the panel events, entitled "About Reading," moderated by Louise Steinman, the director of the Los Angeles Central Public Library's Aloud series with interviews with authors. While I've been to many panels over the years with writers talking about their books and the process of writing, this was the first I'd ever seen about the act of reading. It made me realize several things about why any of us love reading.
Laura Miller, author of The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, quoted C.S. Lewis who said, "The delight we take in a book gives us a sense of its worth." Isn't that true?
Earlier this year, I took such incredible and surprising delight in reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen that I decided to teach it in my Freshman English class. The class and I finished discussing the book last week, and I was grinning ear to ear the whole time because my eclectic group of students, some of them originally from other countries such as Korea and Mexico, eagerly spoke about what they got from the book-many insights into life as they're living it.
Even though the story revolves around a traveling circus during the Great Depression, every one of my students related. Several of them simply had never experienced the joy of reading a great story. Reading had been fun. They wanted other recommendations for books. I told them to look at my list on Amazon.
I'd also been fascinated by the photos in Water for Elephants. I'd never seen documentary photos in a novel before, and, inspired, I added seven black-and-white shots to my novel The Brightest Moon of the Century just before it was finalized for print.
Novelist Jane Smiley (Moo), also on the panel, said, "Books and novels are two different things. The book is on the table. The novel is in your mind. Novels cultivate the inner life of a reader."
All the panelists then spoke of how novels and other books have given them experiences that they otherwise would not have had. Reviewer Lizzie Skurnick, whose upcoming book Shelf Discovery is about rereading her favorite childhood books, spoke about how vivid books can be for kids and teenagers and how they can shape and guide their lives.
Sara Nelson, author of So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading for which she read a book a week for fifty-two weeks, said she didn't have time to reread many books because there is so much that's out there that she still wants to discover.
When Ms. Steinman asked for questions from the audience, Ann stepped up to the microphone and said how she was a librarian at an all-girls high school, and was there such thing as a "bad" book if a child or young adult wanted to read it? Lizzie Skurnick said that she read without restrictions as a child and young adult, and it simply fueled her love of reading. All the others agreed.
In fact, Jane Smiley brought up how, years ago, her daughter was reading a book in the series Sweet Valley High (for which Skurnick, it turns out, had written nine volumes), and when Smiley saw that one of the characters was on life support in a coma, she asked her daughter, "Are you sure you want to be reading this? Such a trauma isn't the most happy thing." Her daughter replied, "Oh, Mom! It's not trauma. It's drama."
Kids say the darnedest things.
The rest of the day, Ann and I wandered in an out of booths, had a fantastic if expensive chicken bowl lunch sitting on the edge of a fountain, and ran into friends like magic.
The day, in fact, was as magical as reading.
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