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Los Angeles Times “Festival of Books” April 29, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in books.

The LA Times “Festival of Books”, at the UCLA campus in Westwood, is one of the highlights of our year.  It’s a weekend-long celebration of the written word, encompassing panel sessions, interviews, writing workshops and publishers’ booths, all draped engagingly on the beautiful UCLA campus, and, amazingly, all free.  The LA Times says that it’s the largest book festival in the US, and I wouldn’t argue.  I remember a British author two or three years ago expressing his astonishment at the scale of the show.

I tend to gravitate to the science panels and those of a political nature.  Normally, the science panels focus on the finalists in the Science section of the LA TImes Book Prizes, which are awarded on Friday evening.  This year’s winner was none other than Douglas Hofstadter, for his new work “I Am a Strange Loop”, or, as the moderator described it, “I Is a Strange Loop”. (You’ll have to check the book to understand what he was getting at!)  Hofstadter was on a panel with Dava Sobel, who talked a little about her upcoming play about Copernicus, Brian Fagen. whose book “The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilisations” describes the Medieval Warming of 800-1300 and offers lessons this period can teach us about what might happen as the earth of our own period warms dramatically, and Gino Segrè, whose book “Faust in Copenhagen”, uses the device of a skit, based on Goethe’s Faust, and performed at a 1932 physics conference in Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen, to provide a human picture of the physics and physicists of the time, a period where physics was about to change the world, and be irrevocably changed by it.

The second science panel I attended was even more interesting.  The theme was “Mind Matters”, a title capable of multiple interpretations, in traditional Festival style.  The panelist were a seriously diverse bunch.  I’d seen two of them before, the mother and son combination of Sandy and Matt Blakeslee, but Christine Kenneally and Daniel Lord Smail, were new to me.  The Blakeslees seem to be an ideal combination – a kind of distributed science writer.  Sandy has been writing about science, mainly for the New York Times, for decades, whereas Matt is a trained cognitive scientist, now working as a freelance writer.  Their book “The Body Has a Mind Of Its Own”, describes new and arresting research into the way in which the neurological apparatus in the brain builds and rebuilds the idea of self.  The central idea is body mapping, and it seems as though there’s a lot happening in this area right now.

Christine Kenneally is an Australian science writer with a doctorate in linguistics from Cambridge.  Her book, “The First Word” is a comprehensive tour of the work going on in evolutionary linguistics – how language evolved, and the extent to which it’s a uniquely human capability.  And finally Daniel Lord Smail, who’s Professor of History at Harvard, described his work on bringing together the previously unconnected areas of history and neuroscience.  The book is “On Deep History and the Brain”.

It was fascinating, and very energising, to hear these authors talk about their work.  There’s something about bright, articulate people with stories to tell which really resonates with me.  So these books are now sitting on the top of my precariously balanced to-be-read pile.  Sometimes I actually get started on my Festival purchases before next year’s Festival comes around.  This year will be one of those years, I’m confident.

I’ll get to the political sessions – energising in a somewhat different way – in another post.



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