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Tucson book festival brings city a sense of healing

The event attracts hundreds of authors and thousands of attendees for a weekend of literary fun. But many see it as a sign that Tucson is returning to normal after the January shooting rampage.

March 14, 2011|By Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tucson — Two months ago, residents of Tucson took to the streets to protest violence, mourn the dead and pray for the recovery of those wounded when a gunman opened fire on a congresswoman meeting with constituents.

On Sunday, people gathered by the thousands in Tucson again. The event was billed as a book festival, but for many it was a celebration of their city and a sign that Tucson was returning to normal.

An estimated 100,000 people attended the Tucson Festival of Books this weekend — about 20,000 more than last year, festival officials said. Bill Viner, an event organizer, said vendors reported doing about 20% more business than in 2010.

Among those attending was Joyce Casey, in town from Cleveland to visit her son. "There was such a wonderful energy," Casey said. She added that a person turned to her at the festival and, thinking Casey was a Tucson resident, said, "Isn't it wonderful that we all have something to celebrate after these difficult times?"

More than 400 authors attended the event, staged with the help of 1,500 volunteers. Throughout the plaza at the University of Arizona people cued up at food booths, sometimes in lines 30 and 40 deep, and listened to brass bands and norteño music. They attended panel discussions, listened to storytellers and bought armfuls of books.

And they appeared to do it in good humor, even on Saturday when a deli, overwhelmed by the growing crowds, ran out of bread at 1:30 p.m. To Michele Schwitzky, who ran the authors' hospitality rooms, it seemed that the town had grown more forgiving of minor annoyances.

"People seemed to be more tolerant of little problems — little things that can go wrong," she said.

The festival, now in its third year, has quickly become a Tucson institution. Last year's event raised about $350,000 for literacy programs in the area, organizers said. Its arrival this year coincided with reminders of the Jan. 8 shooting that wounded 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and left six dead.

On Wednesday, accused gunman Jared Lee Loughner pleaded not guilty to 49 felony counts, including murder and attempted murder, in connection with the shooting rampage.

Then on Friday, doctors reported that Giffords was "making leaps and bounds in terms of neurological progress," and there is a good possibility she will be able to attend the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, which her husband, astronaut Mark E. Kelly, will command in April.

On Sunday, President Obama called for more efficient and faster background checks on gun purchasers. In an opinion piece for the Arizona Daily Star, one of the festival's sponsors, the president referred to Loughner when he wrote, "A man our Army rejected as unfit for service; a man one of our colleges deemed too unstable for studies; a man apparently bent on violence, was able to walk into a store and buy a gun."

Obama said the country must find ways to respect the nation's history of gun ownership while also making sure guns do not fall into the wrong hands.

"Some will say that anything short of the most sweeping anti-gun legislation is a capitulation to the gun lobby," Obama wrote. "Others will predictably cast any discussion as the opening salvo in a wild-eyed scheme to take away everybody's guns."

The festival focused on books and reading, but there were reminders of the January shooting. One session Saturday was "Bringing Meaning Out of Meaninglessness: How Literature Can Respond to the Jan. 8 Shooting." The room overflowed, and hundreds who wanted to attend had to be turned away.

sam.quinones@latimes.com

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