"What Are You Reading?" Asked the <em>LA Times</em> Festival of Books

In a city known for its Hollywood glitz and climate-friendly outdoor living, what many don't know about Los Angeles is how much it reveres its book festival.
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"What are you reading?"queried the large black letters atop a tent wall at UCLA.

Photo by Linda Milazzo

On this ultra unique canvas, the literary ice-breaker what are you reading? isn't answerable with a typical verbal reply. Responding to what are you reading? here, at the 15th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, requires finding space on the formerly all-white wall that after just two hours is dense with book titles, ranging from children's classics to the coming-of-age The Catcher In The Rye, to seemingly equal numbers of postings of The Bible and The Koran. In a city known for its Hollywood glitz and climate-friendly outdoor living, what many don't know about Los Angeles is how much it reveres its book festival; the largest in the nation, attended by 130,000 readers of all ages and ethnicities.

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is a cornucopia of literary and intellectual treats. It is two full days of panel discussions, live stage events and seemingly endless booths of books, reading paraphernalia and special interest vendors. There are booths devoted to spirituality, religion, and to no religion at all:

Photo by Linda Milazzo

Rows of booths line the campus as far as the eye can see, filled with books on every conceivable topic, including travel, health and wellness, education, history, science, philosophy, performing arts, fine arts, writing, writers, poetry and politics:

Ayn Rand enjoys resurgent popularity among the younger tea party crowd.

Photo by Linda Milazzo L.A. publisher Frank Dorrel's Addiction To War booth

Like any big event in Los Angeles, this Festival has its share of celebrities. But at this event, quite charmingly, most celebrities are entertaining the children, because, quite charmingly, they've all written children's books.

The Festival of Books has an innovative and invigorating program for kids. Its list of famous children's book authors could comprise a typical award show. Some of this year's childrens' author performers were Carl Reiner, Peter Yarrow, Henry Winkler, Shawn and Marlon Wayans, Holly Robinson Peete and Bernadette Peters.

But the kids weren't the only ones having fun at the festival. The LA Times Stage hosted some of the best author/comedians in the business. On Saturday, Curb Your Enthusiasm's Jeff Garlin was convulsingly funny as he described his big weight loss and what it's like to work with the great Larry David, who Garlin describes as a genius.


Photo by Linda Milazzo

On Sunday, Sarah Silverman brought down the house as she read a dozen messages left by her father on her voice mail. Silverman was as funny and she was wise. Responding to a questioner who asked what advice she would give a young comedian, Silverman replied:

Don't let yourself be compromised. The way not to compromise yourself is not to be owned by money. I probably have the smallest ratio of money to comedian anywhere. I own my SAAB and after this book I'll also own my apartment.

Silverman's father's voice messages spoke volumes of his disdain for the hubris of the rich. It's obvious his sentiment was passed on to his daughter - refreshingly and unselflshly so.

Photo by Linda Milazzo

So, what's your answer to the proverbial what are you reading? My answer is usually ten books at a time. But right now I'm focused mainly on John Nichols and Robert McChesney's The Death and Life of American Journalism (subtitle: The Media Revolution That Will Begin The World Again). Sadly John and Bob couldn't present at this weekend's festival due to a previously scheduled book event in Denver, but I did see them on their book tour in Venice the Sunday before. And I saw their book featured prominently by their publisher, Nation Books.

Nichols and McChesney would have been welcome additions to the book festival this year, for unlike other years that thrived on author driven social, political and media discussions, this year's festival suffered a dearth of panelists writing and speaking in these realms. Festival favorites like Amy Goodman, Chris Hedges, Christopher Hitchens and Arianna Huffington weren't present this year. Their absence left a void in relevant commentary. Thankfully, other non-fiction favorites returned, though not in sufficient numbers to give the festival its traditional cutting edge feel. The great journalists Amy Wilentz and Mark Danner were there, as were Tom Hayden, Matt Miller and Bob Scheer. Intrepid journalist Sebastian Junger was also there. Still there was nowhere near the amount of socio-political discussion that seasoned festival attendees have come to enjoy.

Unlike previous years, which addressed critical issues of media and journalism on powerful and provocative panels, barely any attention was paid to media this year, other than a panel on new media & publishing late Sunday. That panel featured performer and new media entrepreneur, Wil Wheaton, and was widely attended, but the discussion was too nuanced for many who were there. The woman seated next to me barely understood a word. I understood 75 percent, even though I spend much of my time as a new media writer.

Frank Dorrel, the popular Los Angeles publisher of Addicted To War (pictured above), noted the void of topical panels and authors. Dorrel, who has hosted the Addicted To War booth at the Festival for 9 years, commented:"I took a look at the program schedule and thought there were very few political speakers or panels this year."

Mansoor Sabbagh, Director of Global Voices for Justice, who has recorded panels and speakers at the Festival of Books for the last 6 years, also felt this year's event was lacking in political relevancy. He stopped me as I entered the one panel offered on the Middle East and asked if I'd noticed how conservative the festival had become. He said: "This year's festival is very non-controversial and the really great contemporary voices aren't here. These panels aren't challenging. They're not even current. They're boring."

There were non-stop panels on fiction - especially mysteries. Escapism had its sway. But issues of reality were sorely lacking. I've attended 13 of the 15 years of this festival and I admit that I was sorely disappointed. Two years ago were the best political and media panels I've experienced at the festival. Last year the political and media panels were excellent. This year the few panels I attended were lackluster and, as Mansoor said, not even current. One political panel that had high expectation and a long waiting-line, to boot, was the only panel on the Middle East, presented by Reza Aslan, Roxana Saberi, Ilan Berman and Bruce Wallace.

Photo by Linda Milazzo

Sadly this panel never met its expectation and failed to address some of the most pressing issues of the region. The blockade of Gaza, the settlement expansions into the West Bank, and the one-state vs. two state solution were never discussed - quite disappointing for a panel titled "The Middle East: Facing The Realities."

Overall, though, considering the great performances by Garlin and Silverman on the LA Times Stage, the beautiful UCLA campus, the superb weather and the wealth of information at the booths, the festival was more a success than not. But next year, my hope is that the organizers will bring back solid panelists with gripping topics. Los Angeles has a sophisticated population wanting sophisticated information. Give it to them. Anything less is disappointing.

Now... back to the query what are you reading? Here's the most adorable answer to that question. This little darling wasn't really able to answer that question with a book title. Instead she left her name scribbled above the rest. Perhaps one day her name will adorn a book jacket or some e-book of the future. One thing's for sure - she has no fear of heights.

Photo by Linda Milazzo

Finally, just because it happened, here's a video of an umbrella tetris flash mob on the festival stairs:

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