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Fuel for the Mind

April 27, 2002

What a feast for the flames! The rows of tents, the thousands of bookshelves and tables, holding hundreds of thousands of books! Montag, the grinning fireman of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," would take one look at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, unholster his kerosene nozzle, flip his igniter and--thwump--flame would blossom everywhere. Thank goodness it's fiction.

Bradbury's 1953 tale of censorship, social repression, book-burning and rebellion is, for the rest of this month, Los Angeles' "city book." It wasn't really fire that L.A. native Bradbury worried about but its metaphorical equivalents of competing media and social apathy. He foresaw, 50 years ago, "earbud" portable sound systems and wall-size televisions, spewing mind candy at high volume. Even the televised slow-speed chase: "Twenty million Montags running, soon, if the cameras caught him running like an ancient flickery Keystone Comedy, cops, robbers, chasers and the chased, hunters and the hunted." He heard the rumble of wars. And Taliban-esque censorship even of human figures in art.

In 1953 the fear was Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunts for Communist sympathizers. Today, substitute Al Qaeda--or intolerant extremists anywhere, the people who would outlaw Harry Potter. "Fahrenheit 451" (the temperature at which paper combusts) is hair-raisingly apt for the post-9/11 world.

Multiply Bradbury's brain food by the thousands and you have the book fair, taking place today and Sunday for its seventh year at UCLA. It includes an appearance by Bradbury.

Another cheering development for literature and literacy is the city-book and state-book movement. Seattle, city of readers, started it in 1998 with Russell Banks' brilliant, gloomy "The Sweet Hereafter." Chicago picked up the idea last fall, choosing Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." L.A.'s is a more provocative and less dutiful choice.

The press releases last month said Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn had picked the Bradbury book himself. It seemed like so much PR, but it truly was personal. In a Times biographical sketch in 2000 he listed "Fahrenheit 451" as his favorite book. "Ray was from L.A., ['Fahrenheit'] was about books and written in a library" at UCLA, Hahn said this week. "As an avid young reader, I was in love with sci-fi and Bradbury," because he wrote about human beings, not just rocket ships.

Next month, John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" becomes the first "state book." It is about California's past, its dust-bowl migrants, rather than Bradbury's world future. But the Central Coast author's best and most famous novel offers similar shivers of recognition and--no peeking allowed--a final scene that no one ever, ever forgets.

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To Take Action: Festival schedules and maps are at www.latimes.com/extras/festivalof books/. (Click on Attendees.)

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