Opening Books, Opening Minds at the Festival

Times Staff Writer

With critics pointing a harsh finger at Muslims and the Arab world, Alia Dada and Shahid Ali could not have been more pleased with the crowds gathered around their little information booth at the 11th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday.

By day’s end, they had handed out more than 1,500 free paperback English translations of the Koran and answered hundreds of sometimes tough questions about their faith.

Refilling the diminishing stack of Korans on her display table over the weekend, Ali said a few visitors even “came up to apologize for having said negative things about Islamists in the past.”


Theirs was one of 350 booths visited by an estimated 127,500 people during the two-day book festival, a community event designed to celebrate the written word and bring together a critical mass of readers and authors to develop ideas and discuss the hottest topics of the day.

On the sprawling grounds of UCLA, thousands of readers listened in on crowded panel discussions and packed book booths in search of their own special interests.

On a panel titled “Unearthing the Roots of Religion,” Dennis MacDonald, director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont School of Theology, presented a riveting account Saturday of how the Gospels were “deeply indebted to Homeric poems,” including “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”

The scholar also lamented that although publication of the blockbuster works of fiction, including “The Da Vinci Code,” has revived public interest in the world’s enduring traditions, they blur the lines between scholarly investigation and pop culture.

His audience roared with delighted approval when he pointed out that such books “are crossing over into my territory and they are not helping.”

At a discussion named “Mystery: Hip Chicks Packing Heat,” Patricia Smiley, author of “Cover Your Assets,” explained to several hundred people how she develops characters in her books. The topic was particularly relevant to at least a quarter of the audience, who raised their hands when moderator Emily Green asked how many were writing mystery novels.


Smiley’s main heroine, Los Angeles financial consultant Tucker Sinclair, for example, may have been “conceived in the back seat of a Corvair,” but she is anything but consumed by sexual escapades.

“She’s funny and smart” and brave, Smiley told an audience of about 400. “I think of her as more of a female Mighty Mouse.”

With the publishing world reeling after bestselling author James Frey was found to have altered or embellished parts of his memoir “A Million Little Pieces” and the recent admission by a Harvard student that she plagiarized portions of her first novel, the subject of plagiarism came up in a discussion called “Publishing: Finding the Next Big Thing.” But publishers, including Charlie Winton of Avalon Publishing Group, conceded that his business is based on an honor code and all but impossible to police.

Amid “increasing pressure to find and publish new exciting things,” he said, “if somebody comes in with the intention of ripping off the readers, the process can be broken.”

Elsewhere, more than 500 people lined up at book signing by actress Julie Andrews, who was able to spend only an hour at event.

UCLA student Kaitlyn Voyce, the next-to-last person in a line stretching more than a block, remained hopeful despite the odds.

“I just learned she’s only got enough time to sign 100 books,” Voyce said. “Of course, I’m disappointed. But I’m hanging in there. After all, she’s Mary Poppins!”

A few yards away, San Fernando High School special education teacher Richard Reynoso and his family were searching out interactive booths featuring games and music for children. They also enjoyed the food stands, music and booths selling children’s books and games.

“I bought my 3-year-old son Ricardo a video that will help him learn to spell,” he said. “I got my 1-year-old daughter some pizza.”

Before joining a panel with a particularly intense subject: “Under a Crescent Moon: The Changing Shape of the Middle East,” Iran expert Reza Aslan said the “future of Islam is underway in the United States.”

“Islam is no longer a foreign, exotic religion. It’s an integrated part of U.S. society,” he said. “Eventually, I believe we will see a much more gender-neutral interpretation of the Koran and Muslim superheroes in sit-coms.” Confided Aslan with a smile, “In fact, I’m working on a sit-com proposal now.” Dada and Ali would not argue with any of that.

“It’s amazing, almost a miracle, that people are so interested in Islam right now,” said Ali, a 24-year-old college student majoring in international business. “The fact that so many people are taking Korans will only help dispel misconceptions.

“We are not terrorists,” she added, “and we’re here to spread that message.”