Festival Notes–Part II LA Times Book Prizes

If you haven’t been to the LA Times Festival of Books, let’s just say it’s the Godzilla of book festivals. King Kong. Two days at UCLA in the sun and dappled shade… hundreds of panels, booths, readings, conversations… plus the green room, where writers free feed and kibitz before and after their events.

The kickoff, however, comes Friday night at the LA Times Book Prizes. This event used to be held at Royce Hall, a huge venue, big hoopla, extravagant afterparty, chocolate fountain, say no more…

Now we’re in a more austere era and it’s back at the Times, and I for one really like it there, far more modest, more intimate–like the old days when I used to take the streetcar with Barbara Stanwyck and the Academy Awards was a dinner at the Biltmore Hotel.

Just writers, editors, journalists–colleagues. I sat right behind state librarian Kevin Starr, a real hero of mine, who’s writing the definitive history of California. I got to see him win the prize for History for the latest volume, Golden Dreams, California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963 (To see all the winners, and the nominees, check out www.events.latimes.com/bookprizes/previous-winners/year-2009/ What I especially like about the evening is that they talk about all the nominees, not just the winners, so you come away with fifty amazing books you want to read…

Books I specifically added to my must-read list are the Seidenbaum award-winner for First Fiction, American Rust, by Phillipp Meyers, (great acceptance speech too, prize for most eloquent eyebrows), and the science winner, The Strangest Man: Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, by Graham Farmelo (the drop dead funniest acceptance speech via video from England– and Dirac needed someone pretty wacky to get him, evidently…)

But for me, the highlight of the night was a brand new category, for Innovation, which they gave to Dave Eggers.

Too often these days, innovation is a code-word for technology. I recently went to an all-day conference at USC that was supposed to be about innovation, but it was basically lots of uses for tech and making things more efficient (and making shitloads of money for someone, but you weren’t supposed to notice that)–interspersed with some performances to break up the clear bias.

It made me nuts because innovation and technology are not synonymous. And here was Dave Eggers to prove it.

Innovation is about having a new idea. Tech or no tech, I’m more interested in innovative social interactions and structures and economic relations, to ends which benefit us all.

We’re just so blinded by apparatus. At that conference, there was talk after talk about technology. Using technology in medicine. Robotics. Keeping track of Singapore’s every waking moment and quantifying it. The use of cell phones to meet human needs. Yes, pretty cool, that rickshaw drivers can use their cell phones to check out the road conditions.

But innovation at its best is about restructuring social conditions, to solve serious problems in a way that often is very low-tech. Muhammed Yunnis won the Nobel Prize, not for cell phones among rickshaw drivers, but showing ways that vast populations can pull themselves out of poverty by organizing lending on the smallest scale to the poorest of people.

Which brings me back to the Times book prize.

We live at a time when publishing can resemble a wake, the mourners wailing into their hankies about how life will never be the same… How many times do I have to see publishing panels and editorials about the demise of print? Yes, it will never be the same! WELL DUH! But what good does all that hankie crumbling and hand wringing do anyone?

Enter Eggers and other new publishers, at innovative houses like Akashic and Soft Skull and Melville House. They aren’t as invested in the Good Old Days and the Demise of the Way It Used to Be as those who have come of age in that pleasant but in many ways also limited system. Eggers, Johnny Temple et al are living in the present moment. They’re looking around and thinking, We could do this, we could try that… And they try it.

In Egger’s case, he started with the profits of a bestselling memoir, and his writerly production since–and started a cool print publishing house and literary journal–McSweeney’s, and a monthly journal, The Believer, and now a quarterly DVD journal, Wholpin, as well as an ambitious literacy program in cities around America, 826. (That he can also do his own writing–for instance, his book about Katrina, Zeitoun, won the prize this year for Current Interest–is just mind boggling).

But the point is, these are ideas and the implementation of ideas that have NOTHING to do with technology but everything to do with vision. The guy has a vision, he’s obviously sort of a Godzilla/world-eating personality, (anybody who calls his first book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is going to be a bit of a Godzilla…) but in my book, the refusal to get caught up with wah wah they took away my world is what gets him the prize. He looked around and saw the possibilities, as Yunnis did, and didn’t stop with just thinking about it, but had the courage and energy to act on his convictions.

And God bless him, he believes in print. This is not a tech solution. He loves print and believes that if he publishes fine books that people want to touch, beautifully designed and typeset, if he presents journals which are both worth reading and tactile-ly, and visually gorgeous, people will buy them. And they do.

And he teaches kids to love books. At 826, they make their own, bound little books. Kids know. They don’t find the internet all that exciting, any more than a fish finds water a thrill. They want print. And that’s what he gives them. Which is of more value to the health of books than a million whining panels or the next crop of internet/ebook tech breakthroughs.

Everyone laughed a bit–nervously–as Eggers said he didn’t even have internet at home or where he worked. He drove to the parking lot of a carpet place where he could tap into their internet a couple of times a day on their unprotected wifi, get his mail and get the hell out.

The guy doesn’t need any more kudos but I’ll give it to him anyway. Thanks, Dave.

NEXT: Part III: THE LA TIMES FESTIVAL OF BOOKS–The Panels

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5 Responses to “Festival Notes–Part II LA Times Book Prizes”

  1. Janet,

    I love this. The connection between vision and innovation is everything. And there is something here too about people becoming organic leaders. Clearly, Eggers is comfortable with who he is enough to forge into the world with his unique vision. What an inspiration, and thanks for sharing. Love your POV.

  2. Joseph Piantadosi Says:

    Not to be a noodge, but surely you mean kibitz, as in The Kibitz Room next to Canter’s. All the rest..Rock On, Sistah!

  3. Bravo! Refreshing points of view! Chris

  4. Priscilla Morais Says:

    Thanks for taking us all there with you….

  5. Linda Says:

    Wow, way to get yer rant on, Miss Janet! Now if I find out next week that you attended a panel that I attended but I did not see you, then I am going to get MY wah wah on.

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