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Bringing Los Angeles to the Brooklyn Book Festival

September 24, 2012|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • The crowd at the Brooklyn Book Festival.
The crowd at the Brooklyn Book Festival. (David L. Ulin / Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK -- Partway through my Sunday panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, the subject turned to archetypes of Los Angeles. We – the novelists Seth Greenland (“The Angry Buddhist”),  Emma Straub (“Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures”), Karolina Waclawiak (“How to Get Into the Twin Palms”) and myself – were there to discuss the literature of Southern California. Cognitive dissonance, perhaps … or maybe a sign that, 55 years after L.A. stole the Dodgers, Brooklyn has come around.

And why not? Next month, the NBA’s Nets begin play in Brooklyn – the first major-league sports team to call the borough home since the Dodgers left after the 1957 season. And this weekend, the seventh annual book festival reaffirmed Brooklyn’s place as a locus of the American literary world.

The Brooklyn Book Festival is one of my favorites: a real city event, unfolding, largely, in and around Borough Hall. It has panels, yes – dozens of them, featuring writers who this year included Joyce Carol Oates, Walter Mosley, Dana Spiotta, Dennis Lehane, Elissa Schappell and Naomi Wolf – but what’s best about it are the stalls, which sprawl out across the plaza behind Borough Hall like a three-dimensional Rorschach test, representing the health of book culture in a society that wants to think otherwise.

Every year, I find new things in these book stalls – new publishers, new booksellers. On Sunday, my favorite discoveries included the magazine The Coffin Factory, which publishes fiction, criticism and essays, and Small Demons, a digital project that seeks to create a database of references in books and literally map them, allowing us to imagine literature in three-dimensional space.

What do these efforts have in common? Not a lot – except the faith that reading matters, that books and stories form the substance of our inner lives. I agree, which is why I love this festival, for its willingness to celebrate the written word in all its manifestations, even when it comes from Los Angeles.

After our panel – which concluded that L.A. writing worked best when it undermined the city’s archetypes, since this is the way Los Angeles has most often been misunderstood – I bought a souvlaki at a food truck, then wandered up and down the rows of publishers and booksellers, drawing sustenance from the optimism of the event.

It may be the common trope that books and publishing are at risk – although I have never believed that. But you wouldn't know it from spending your Sunday here.

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