When the tents go up, the readers come out.
Vendors haul trucks of rare books, leather journals and comics to their stands. Bestselling authors brace themselves in preparation for the adoration of their fans, the sort that will spend hours waiting in line for a signature on a title page. Native Angelenos — or even those who found the weekend trip worth the expense — flock to USC’s campus carrying tote bags and rolling backpacks, all for the chance to bring home some of the best literary spoils of the year.
Attracting about 150,000 people each year, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, now in its 19th year, took over USC’s campus this weekend. With big names such as John Green, Lisa See, Terry McMillan and athlete-turned-author Pau Gasol drawing large crowds, the festival made good on the promise it’s held in previous years: a fabulous time for lovers of the written word.
“People want to believe that they can be transformed, that events can transform their lives,” said Susan Squires, author of Waiting for Magic, at a Saturday afternoon panel titled “Fiction: A Love Story.” “And I think people want that again and again … They find a satisfaction in seeing that resolved.”
Though Squires was referring specifically to a question about why romance novels make up the most commercially successful genre of fiction, her insights can explain why people continue to read books at all. In an era where threats of the death of the novel and the irrelevance of literature run rampant, the Festival of Books continues to prove that readers still read and that writers still write. And with the enthusiasm and vigor that permeated through USC’s campus this weekend, the business of literature appears to be doing just fine.
But the Festival of Books proves more, of course, than just the fact that literature still holds a particular relevance (and reverence) in our culture. Amidst all of the cooking demonstrations, books stalls and cartoon characters entertaining the youngest readers, a genuine love for reading in all of its combinations abounds. Many festival goers — indeed, even the featured authors — are not only avid readers, but also creative writers. Some fans of romance also enjoy nonfiction; other readers are simultaneously fascinated by historical fiction and mystery. There are no boundaries, it seems, to the sorts of material one can read or write.
At a panel titled “Fiction in Brief: The Art of the Story,” which focused on the short story craft, author Jamie Quatro speculated on the multifaceted passions that reading can inspire.
“I love the compressed lyricism of the short story,” said Quatro during the panel. Quatro is a short story author who recently published his collection I Want to Show You More. “I love poetry. I love reading poetry … I think every short fiction writer should be reading poetry.”
Such dualism makes USC a prime host for the event. Though the Festival of Books has only been held at USC for four years — before that, it was located at the University of California, Los Angeles — the sheer number of USC faculty and alumni presenting at the event shows another sort of literary combination: a love of reading, teaching and research.
Faculty members such as Shana Redmond of the American Studies and Ethnicity Department gave talks on music and politics. English professors Leo Braudy and Dana Johnson discussed the relevance of truth across different genres. Aimee Bender participated in a panel on fiction and marginality, and on Sunday, the festival featured bestselling author T.C. Boyle.
The Festival of Books also boasted USC alumni among its featured writers, including Cecilia Velástegui, who gave a reading of her new children’s book, Olinguito Speaks Up, with the assistance of several USC students. Velástegui received her master’s in counseling in 1977, and since then, has gone on to have an illustrious career as an author.
“I’ve written four other books, and they’re all psychological thrillers with a lot of historical intrigue, but this one … it was something I couldn’t pass up,” Velástegui said to the Daily Trojan. “This little animal was discovered last summer. I was in between books, and it just kind of came to me all in the middle of the night. And I thought, ‘This is fabulous. I’ve got to write it.’”
Inspired by the discovery of the olinguito species, part of the raccoon family, last August, Olinguito Speaks Up tells a fabled story of an olingutio who learns to stand up for himself when his friend Tomás begins to tell longwinded tales to the rest of the animals in an Ecuadorian cloud forest. The olingutio gave Velastegui a chance to write about larger environmental issues.
“I think the message was there,” Velástegui said when asked why she decided to turn the story into a children’s book. “It was very ready for me to write a children’s book that had a positive message along with a little bit of [sadness] about what we’re doing to the environment. I didn’t want to turn dark like I can sometimes in my novels, but I didn’t want to sugarcoat it too much …There are still a lot of things that we can discover, but at the same time, let’s really keep in mind that we’re losing a lot of our beautiful animals.”
Of course, for Velástegui, participating in the 2014 Festival of Books has an even greater significance: getting the chance to read her work at her alma mater.
“I’m looking at all of the [buildings] where I used to take my classes, and it’s like home,” Velástegui said. “It’s USC. There’s only one USC, and you feel at home when you walk back here. Like [time] never happened and you realize, ‘Oh, it’s been 32 years.’” She laughed before adding, “A little long.”
As the festival ends, Velástegui and the other authors at the Festival of Books finish the last of their autographs, putting the caps on their pens as they prepare to leave. The vendors take down unsold books from their shelves. The last of the festival-goers cram their books into their totes and load their purchases into their cars. And USC students on their way to Monday morning class will see the white tents coming down, the last physical marker of the weekend’s festivities.
But it’s not that the festival hasn’t left a lasting impression on visitors: Now that the excitement is over, readers will sit pouring over their books, waiting for next year’s event.