Wednesday, May 15, 2019

half a day at a book festival

The day I went to the California Symphony, which was Sunday a week and a half ago now, that was in Walnut Creek in the late afternoon, so it gave me time to spend part of the earlier part of the day at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley.

I'd gone to a couple panels at this three years ago and have been on their mailing list ever since. But I hadn't found anything that looked worth making the trek to Berkeley for until I suddenly found one of this year's guests, Carlos Lozada, on my radar. Lozada has been the nonfiction book critic of the Washington Post for a while now, but I'd only come across him a month earlier when I read his takedown of the now-ex Baltimore mayor's children's book. You heard about this? The mayor resigned after a scandal around the large sums of money she got selling vast numbers of copies of her self-published children's books to various state institutions that could use a mayor's (or a state legislator's, which is what she was previously) help. Anyway, while the scandal was still boiling Lozada got hold of a copy of one of the books (which wasn't easy to find) and gave it a hilarious (and rather atypical of him) review. Since then he's also reviewed the Mueller report in its capacity as a book to read, rather than parsing it purely for intellectual content.

So Lozada was to be on this panel in a hotel ballroom on "Courage in Publishing in an Age of Political Polarization," which sounded interesting, so I went. At first the heavily overpopulated panel looked as if it wasn't going to go anywhere very useful, with heavy remarks about "cancel culture" and the "new prudishness" and whether the news that Woody Allen can't find a publisher for his memoirs means that publishers lack courage. Someone tried to draw a distinction that what's called "cultural appropriation" is not a bad thing in itself; borrowing is enriching; it's disrespect and exploitation which are bad. Well, good luck at maintaining that distinction.

But the moderator kept good traffic control, and when Lozada got a chance to speak, he put forth some good points from his Mueller review. I wrote him down as saying, "The report is the best of the inside White House books because Robert Mueller has subpoena power. Imagine if Bob Woodward had subpoena power. That would be really interesting." They then got into the question of whether the report is going to be an unread bestseller. Another panelist said, "The Attorney General doesn't seem to have read it," to which Lozada quipped, "Then he shouldn't have reviewed it."

Lozada also got a chance to deliver a bit on the kinds of over-common and repetitious books that political reviewers like himself see too much of these days. They cross the political spectrum. The ones on the left that he's tired of are, he said, "resistance anthologies consisting of essays by obsessively like-minded writers who keep screaming 'this is not who we are' over and over again, which I don't think is very useful," and on the right he finds either accommodationist apologias for Trump or else "book-length breakup letters to the Republican Party without addressing the author's own complicity in making it this way."

After that I wandered over to the Freight, whose auditorium had also been rented by the Festival and which turned out to be a good place for Lozada to interview one Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher with, judging from his interview, an excessively dainty approach. He's recently published a book called The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity which I haven't seen anywhere, nor do many libraries seem to have his earlier books though they're from major publishers. Apparently all his writings focus on identity, which you can understand why it obsesses him once he explains that he's half Ghanaian and half English country gentry with a politically radical side (his grandfather was Stafford Cripps), and now he lives in the US. What am I, anyway? he may well ask.

After that I wandered down to the display area in the city's central park. There were some publishers' booths with nothing I wanted to buy and some food booths with nothing I wanted to eat, so I drifted away.

1 comment:

  1. Appiah is also the author of the NY Times Ethicist column, where his advice isn't much better or better-reasoned than any other advice columnist's advice.