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Bookworms Find Paradise at the LA Times Festival of Books

Despite the rare and terrifying bout of Southern California rain, the freeways into Los Angeles were clogged last Saturday with literary natives and tourists alike, who headed in droves to USC’s campus for the 20th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

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Bibliophiles from all over congregated at USC last Saturday to celebrate literature and the written word. Photo courtesy of Megan Cole.

The free, weekend-long festival is essentially the cheap Coachella of the bibliophile world. This year, its several massive event stages hosted keynote speakers ranging from the current U.S. Poet Laureate to astronaut-turned-author Buzz Aldrin to Carrie Brownstein of “Portlandia.”

The events draw thousands of readers, writers and wanderers each April. Festival-goers divide their time between keynote speaker stages, perusing dozens of pop-up bookshops, frequenting food trucks, getting books signed, listening to live music and checking out hundreds of writing associations, independent publishers, artists and radio stations.

The most remarkable part of the festival is its universal attractiveness. There is a book, writer or activity for everyone among the endless tents and stages. Booths peddling atheist literature, free Qu’rans and secondhand Bibles coexist in the same row. Tents housing children’s literature and comics, Spanish books and steamy romance novels and horror and mystery works permeate  much of USC’s campus. The more mainstream fare – fiction, non-fiction and journalism – populates the rest of the festival.

LA Times reporters Sarah Parvini, Paloma Esquivel, Jack Leonard and Joe Mozingo discuss the experience of being a journalist at the site of the San Bernadino shooting. Photo courtesy of Megan Cole.

Panels span a multitude of topics and are hosted at various stages throughout the day. Highlights this year included current U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, prolific author James Patterson, and actor-writers Padma Lakshmi and Rainn Wilson. Panels of Los Angeles journalists discussed everything from writing personal essays to covering last year’s shooting in San Bernardino. Even a few of UCI’s own got out to discuss their writing – literary journalism professors Miles Corwin and Amy Wilentz, as well as KUCI show host Barbara DeMarco-Barrett.

Almost every speaker’s experience with modern writing was underscored with a similar sentiment: writing, journalism and art are changing, losing traditional funding and adapting to modern mediums – but they aren’t going anywhere.

The Festival of Books itself has adapted over the years, reflecting trends in funding and public taste in media. What began at UCLA in 1996 as a celebration of traditional novels and journalism has since moved to USC’s campus as a result of UC budget cuts, and has shifted focus from exclusively print media to social media journalism, online readership and innovative publishing developments. For instance, festival honoree James Patterson – the first-ever author to sell one million eBooks – recently introduced a venture called “BookShots,” in which he will release four mini-books each month targeted at those used to more digestible reading.

This is not to say that the plight of traditional print media is hopeless. By far, the most packed booths at the festival were the pop-up bookstores, swarming with patrons trying to stay out of the rain and buy stacks of novels. At the festival’s entrance a twenty-foot-long tarp printed with the words “What are you reading?” filled up with thousands of marker scribbles by patrons, boasting of newspapers, Hemingway, Harry Potter, “Game of Thrones” and the “Communist Manifesto.”

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books proves that the way we read and write is changing, but storytelling itself is timeless.