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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I went for a panel on Haiti and found Heaven!

This past weekend was the 15th Annual LA Times Festival of Books held on the UCLA campus. Shame on me but as a native Angelino, not only had I never been to this festival, I don't remember ever even hearing about it! I'm trying to see LA with a tourist's eyes for a change and, ironically, that's helping me get to know the city in a deeper way.

When I started poking around the Festival website, the thing that sealed the deal for me was a panel called "Haiti and Recovery From Disaster." The panel was made up of UC Irvine professor Amy Wilentz, author of "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier," journalist and current Berkeley professor Mark Danner who is author of "Stripping Bare the Body," and author Rebecca Solnit whose latest is "A Paradise Built in Hell" which is an interesting book about how people self-organize in the aftermath of catastrophic natural disasters that turn society on its head. The panel was moderated by Davan Maharaj who is the managing editor of the LA Times. A great lineup, to be sure. And the cost of entry to attend this panel? One dollar on ticketmaster.

I was really blown away by the entire Festival. It was just SO deeply encouraging to see so many people voluntarily attending panels and presentations given by world class thinkers on consequential topics. Nobody had to be there, but even the large convocation halls on the UCLA campus were filled with hundreds of people throughout the day for different talks. The day itself could not have been more beautiful - sunny, warm, everywhere you looked people were holding books, or hands, or food, or dog leashes, or babies, or bags of free recipes, music, poetry. The crowd was so diverse in that amazing way you only find in big cities. Everyone was sharing public spaces either on the stairs of the large campus buildings or the installed event tables, or the soft grass. Aromas from the cooking stage, mariachi from the music stage, readings by elementary school poets, free samples, laughter everywhere, handicap access, I mean you name it and it was there making the day awesome.

I left with a free Qur'an, free CD of Buddhist chant, free poster on US involvement in Haiti, free bookmarks, and the Wilentz book on Haiti since Duvalier (which I did pay for). Not to mention great notes from several really awesome sessions. A panel called "Rebooting Culture: Narrative and Information in the New Age" was particularly good. The panel pointed out in the course of the debate that today, in some ways, we are more in love with the narrative than ever before (we turn everything into a story - just look at reality tv which is doing a great bit of business turning kids' stupid, random lives in beach cities into narratives or look at politics - most recently the Obama vs. Palin matchup which was largely a contest of competing narratives/personal histories). And yet, at the same time that we're eating up more and more narrative all the time, our attention spans our shrinking and the way we live and consume information is becoming less linear.

Anyway, check out David Shields and Nicholas Carr for more on all of that.

My big conclusion is that yes, so many things everywhere are screwed up and horrific. But when a city can offer something like the LA Times Festival of Books, make it accessible to everyone, and fill the place over one weekend with tens of thousands of people who are engaged, challenged, and joyful, God it just makes me stand in awe of what goodness people are capable of and it forces, thankfully, a rush of hope into me.

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