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Welcome to the 4th Annual Festival of Books

April 18, 1999|STEVE WASSERMAN | Steve Wasserman is Book Editor of the Los Angeles Times

On the eve of the 21st century, we are living through a cultural earthquake that is still to be registered on the seismograph of our collective consciousness. By almost any measure, interest in culture is booming. America is increasingly wealthy, worldly and wired. At a time when a good cup of cappuchino is to be found not only on the cosmopolitan coasts, but in the country's heartland as well, popular tastes are growing ever more sophisticated.

The traditional division between so-called high and low culture is steadily rendered irrelevant. People flock to hear Sheryl Crow at the Pantages one night and go hear poets recite at Beyond Baroque the following day. Later they might well dance to the beat of Ricardo Lemvo's Makina Loca at the Conga Room or take in a performance of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" at the Music Center. Notions of elitism and snobbery collapse upon the palpable catholicity of a public whose curiosities are ever more diverse and eclectic.

The percentage of Americans attending the performing arts is rising dramatically. Movies like "Shakespeare in Love" that might once have been consigned to art-house ghettos, now find both Oscars and a mass audience. Regional theaters and opera companies blossom. And Americans are buying serious books in unprecedented numbers. Middle-aged baby boomers enroll in university extension courses as they seek to reinvent themselves with all the new-fangled skills needed to succeed in a world in which the pace of change continues to accelerate. (It is all the more paradoxical, therefore, that so much of the media is intent on dumbing itself down even as more and more people are smartening up.)

The greater Los Angeles metropolitan region is today one of the most important book-buying markets in America, exceeding the greater New York metropolitan region by some $50 million annually. And it is not just Danielle Steel (that Balzac of our time) that people are reading. Judging by the astonishing spectrum of book sales throughout the Southland, people are interested in everything. There are more bookstores thriving in Los Angeles than ever before in the city's history. The phenomenal success of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books to which more than 100,000 people from all walks of life gather over the last weekend in April on the UCLA campus, is further proof of the widespread desire to celebrate the written word.

Despite all the seductions of the wired world, we at The Times remain convinced that so long as the human species continues to be defined by the fact of an opposable thumb and the need to tell each other stories, the written word will continue to have a robust future. To be sure, the arts of reading, which require solitude and reflection, are daily challenged by an information avalanche whose noise tends to stifle the voices that most need to be heard.

Nonetheless, the book has yet to be bested as our most important information-retrieval system: portable, sensuous, compact. Even Bill Gates, that avatar of the virtual world, has been unable to resist its seductions. Underpinning his own published writings is the understanding that books remain the most important means yet invented for the transmission of deep knowledge and lasting entertainment; indeed, for civil society itself.

Ask any of the attendees at the Festival of Books. They understand this truth in their bones. I remember at last year's Festival overhearing a woman ask a UCLA campus police officer if he expected trouble. He looked at her quizzically and replied: "Ma'am, books are like Kryptonite to gangs." There was more wisdom in that single policeman's remark than in a thousand academic monographs on reforming the criminal-justice system. For what he knew is what societies from time immemorial have known: If you want to reduce crime, teach your children to read.

Civilization is built on a foundation of books.

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