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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

L.A. Gets to Bask in the Sunlight of Books

April 29, 2001|JOHN BALZAR

Nothing is so shy, Mark Twain observed, as a newspaper trying to say something good about itself.

True enough. But perhaps you'll allow me an exception.

Generally, newspapers don't glory in their deeds unless the recognition comes from someone else. That's a good thing. Big institutions can forget that modesty is a virtue. And newspapers, wisely, have a death-fear of losing trust if they are seen as self-promotional in the way they write about events or in choosing what events to write about.

But a few years back, a flight of fancy hatched by this newspaper grew into a grand tradition for Southern California, and gave thousands of us reason to cheer our community. It's a story worth telling, even if someone winds up looking good.

It was the autumn of 1995. Narda Zacchino was a ranking editor at The Times and she thought Los Angeles should have a book festival. I was writing book criticism for the paper back then and I was invited to planning meetings because it was presumed I knew a little about books.

Actually, what I knew is that Zacchino and her team had taken leave of their good senses.

As proposed, The Times would organize and sponsor a Festival of Books on a spring weekend at UCLA. Scores of authors would be lured here from around the country to meet a crush of fans.

What? The idea seemed incongruous to me, and for all the obvious reasons. No place in America is so packaged in stereotypes as Los Angeles. We hear them, we repeat them. They pull on us so strongly that we come to believe them. Which makes them true, sometimes. And I never saw easy chairs and reading lamps in the mix.

I think my memory is accurate when I say, at first there were many more doubters than believers in a Los Angeles book festival. Other cities had them, yes. But other cities were not here.

That first festival Saturday six years ago, organizers held their breath. At least I did. I admire daring, but this seemed a lot of daring all at once. What if it flopped? Those of us who treasure books--and by that I mean, the intimacy of books and what they mean to the continuity of our culture--would be seen as just another fringe group griping about the distraction of other fringe groups.

"Few people suspected that Los Angelenos would turn out in any great number. After all, Southern Californians are famous for making a fetish of the body and are not well known for devoting themselves to the life of the mind," says Steve Wasserman, who has since become editor of The Times Book Review.

As you probably know, Southern Californians defied the doubters and streamed onto the UCLA campus that day. They overwhelmed the first festival. In the years since, 100,000 people have shown up on the last weekend in April, to meet the storytellers who have cast magic into their lives: poets and beats, mystics and adventurers; romantics and sleuths, scholars and translators; historians and critics, journalists and sociologists.

I pinch myself each year. Can you imagine so many of us? The old folks with their sun hats and their canes? All these families with kids in strollers? New readers. Tomorrow's readers. The future carried on, unbroken, from a long and storied past.

The Festival of Books proved to be not a departure from our stereotype, but a happy manifestation of it. Authors clamor to come: a chance to escape their lonely desks and bask--yes, bask, for an uplifting moment--in the spotlight of California celebrity. Readers oblige them. There's nothing wrong with celebrities, it seems, as long as you pick the right ones to admire.

Wasserman tells me that we buy more books than New Yorkers. More by $50 million a year, making Southern California the No. 1 market in the nation. It's one thing to read that statistic. It's quite another to see it, to rub shoulders with it, to wander in Royce Quad as I will today and behold a vast mob of Southern Californian bookworms hoisting themselves out of easy chairs to make a festival.

So I won't be shy about it. I give this newspaper credit. It took a chance for what it believes in, for what those of us who work here believe in--the written word. And if giving credit is not your style, it's OK to complain too. Write the editors. Ask what took them so long, anyway.

Either way, remember something else that Mark Twain said: "A man who does not read good books has no advantage over a man who cannot."

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