Notes on L.A.’s Book Fair

The lawns and quadrangles of UCLA this weekend looked like a great renaissance bazaar, with banners flying and rows of white tents lining the walkways. The tents were divided into hundreds of booths crammed full of books; books in display racks, books on shelves, tables piled high with books for sale. Bookstores, publishers, magazines, radio stations, libraries and museums — had all set up shop to hawk their wares at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

Some 100,000 celebrants, representing all ages, races and fashion statements wandered the aisles, picnicked on the lawns and participated in the hundreds of panels and presentations that filled the two-day festival.

Fans and admirers, lugging shopping bags stuffed with books, made their way from author to author, often standing on long lines to accrue collections of signatures.

One could get gardening hints, gather suggestions on how to write a first novel, listen to poetry or watch a cooking demonstration. If you happened to be a veteran of the ’60s era, or had long lamented that you were born too late for all that sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, you could spend the entire afternoon at a triptych of panels on the 1960s.

The first panel — “Demanding the Impossible: ’60s Myths and Realities” — was moderated by Russell Jacoby, author most recently of “The End of Utopia,” with panelists Susan Griffin, a veteran of the feminist and environmental movements and author of more than 20 books; Washington journalist Christopher Hitchens; and Paul Krassner, publisher of the Realist. Jacoby began by pleading not guilty to charges of nostalgia and urged the left not to fear utopian dreams — notes that were repeated intermittently through the afternoon. Krassner, a co-founder of the Yippies, picked up the theme reminding the audience that “fun and responsibility are not mutually exclusive,” as he launched into a wild monologue on sex, drugs, the levitation of the Pentagon and general subversion. Hitchens, surely not suffering from nostalgia, used his 1960s sightings of a marijuana brownie munching Bill Clinton at Oxford (“he didn’t inhale because he was allergic to smoke. I have no recollection of him at all except as a kooky guzzling goof-off), to segue into a critique of Clinton today — a transition allowing him to plug his latest book — “No one Left To Lie To: The Triangulation of William Jefferson Clinton.”

While the first panel was not without its moments of tension, the next, “Second Thoughts? Looking Back at the ’60s,” plunged into full-blown antagonism. David Horowitz, one-time leftist, whose most recent book, “Radical Son,” traces his trajectory from old left through new to his current stance as outspoken man of the right, raged both at his fellow panelists and at the audience, for what he considered their sins of the 1960s, while moderator Maurice Zeitlin, a professor of sociology at UCLA and longtime activist, and Sara Davidson, who was then a reporter for the Boston Globe, defended the virtues of the decade. When Horowitz and Zeitlin launched into a debate on the Geneva Accords and the role of the National Liberation Front , we were all zipped back to 1967. The crowd savored these crackles of hostility, and joined right in. “I love the passion in this room,” said Davidson, as the book fair’s blue-shirted volunteers insisted the meeting come to a timely conclusion, “It’s something I miss about the ’60s.” So much for nostalgia.

The final panel, “Years of Hope, Days of Rage: the ’60s,” moderated by Nation editor Victor Navasky, was the most collegial. The three panelists, Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden, and Robert Scheer have known each other for decades. In both their punditry and politics, they carry out the legacy of the ’60s and were happy to reminisce for an audience that could applaud the mention of the Port Huron statement, but were ready to move on to discuss the travesties of welfare reform and the bombings in Kosovo.

The panels, for anyone intrepid enough to attend all three, were curiously homogeneous in an event that was generally remarkable for the diversity of both its participants and audience. Due to both omissions and absences, the panels were reminiscent of the early ’60s, before the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, when most commentators and interpreters were white men of a certain age — and disproportionately Jewish.

If these panels didn’t manage to sum up and encapsulate the ’60s in the spring of 1999, that was to be expected. They were engaging and lively, and occasionally inspiring — if not exactly transcendent.

Postscript: Encountered in front of the Nation Booth where he was urged to pull out a relevant Chasidic tale, Rabbi Leonard Beerman, rabbi emeritus of Leo Baeck Temple, offered the following:

A Talmudic scholar’s wife had been closely observing her husband. “Excuse me,” she said, “I’ve noticed that day after day, you’ve been reading the same page of the Talmud. Is something the matter? Why aren’t you moving on?”

The scholar looked up at his wife, looked down at the page, and said simply, “I like it here.” “And that,” said Rabbi Beerman, “is how I feel about this Book Fair. I’ve been coming since it began and I like it here. I’m thrilled with this celebration of books and words and ideas — it shows an appetite for literature is still alive in our culture.”