Gina Szilka sat on the grass, munching on tangerines and a chicken sandwich while listening to Amanda Gorman give her first live reading since President Biden’s inauguration.
It was Saturday morning at USC, where hundreds of people thronged the area around the main stage at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. They had just heard Gorman read from “Call Us What We Carry,” her new collection of pandemic-era poems — even as they celebrated a new, post-closure era for L.A. and the festival.
“It’s nice to see L.A. out again — and seeing faces,” said Szilka, 60, who rode her bike and the Expo Line from Santa Monica. “It’s a beautiful day, it’s nice to be back in a community of people, and I’m not so paranoid about COVID anymore.” She’s done all she could to stay safe by getting vaccinated and laying low for a while, but she eventually realized that fear made it impossible to live. “It’s kind of amazing that we made it through two years… being here shows our resilience.”
Thousands of people from Los Angeles and beyond descended upon campus over the weekend for the first in-person L.A. Times Festival of Books in three years — the largest celebration of literature and the written word in the country. They listened to writers talk about dozens of topics during indoor and outdoor panels, purchased books and got them signed by their favorite authors, watched cooking demonstrations, listened to live music and readings and so much more.
Befitting an event overflowing with booths and readings aimed at every demographic and age group, the fair was full of families.
Tucked in at the far end of the children’s area, Brielle, 7, was too busy painting a tree and wings on a pig to talk with a Times reporter at length. But she was “excited” to be back.
Marisol Ramos stood nearby, admiring her niece’s work. “It feels cool being back,” said the 38-year-old from South L.A. “I like looking at the books, and I like the art they have. It’s fun.” But she was most looking forward to shopping for pins and souvenirs at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s booth.
Nearby, Javier, 4, sat front row on the floor watching lion puppets sing and listening to a bilingual reading of Satoshi Kitamura‘s “Qué le Pasa a Mi Cabello?” (What’s Wrong With My Hair?).
His parents, Greg and Terezita Overduin, had been looking forward to finally sharing the book festival with him. “It feels really nice to see the event back,” said Terezita, 35, who drove with her family from Ontario. “It’s been part of our lives for many years, and it was disappointing when we were unable to come, but it’s awesome to be here with my son now and to share the love of books with him.”
Karen Martinez-Chung was also eager to share her enthusiasm with her husband, Michael. For their monthly date outing, she dragged him to the festival — not for one day, but both.
Michael, 38, wasn’t upset about it. The couple, from Cudahy, had just come out of an “informative” Latinx event, and they sat on the expansive steps of Pertusati University Bookstore on Sunday, resting in the shade and enjoying a late lunch.
“I’m from the Bay area, so there was a lot I didn’t know about Echo Park, Boyle Heights,” said Michael, the sports writer for Medium and a first-time festival attendee. “I really loved the panel. It was awesome.”
Karen, 33, loved the opportunity to expand her world — and her reading. “I consider myself a bibliophile, so this is always a really exciting event for me,” said the USC alumna and longtime festivalgoer. A big fiction reader, she was the first to admit that sports writing is a blind spot, but she bought a few books on the subject after attending a panel. “It’s a way for me to expose myself to new authors and genres.”
Also in their tote bag was a new copy of Meena Harris‘ “Ambitious Girl” for their baby-on-the-way. “He’s a boy,” said Michael, “but we’re going to raise him as a feminist.”
While no attendance numbers were yet available, foot traffic grew heavy at peak times and popular events. In past years, the festival has attracted as many as 150,000 visitors; some traveling great distances to commune with writers and fellow readers.
Ali Binazir came only from Santa Monica, but he did have a broken foot. Still, nothing was going to stop him from attending his “favorite event in all of Los Angeles.”
Binazir had just seen U.S. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) speak inside Bovard Auditorium about his book “Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could,” which won an L.A. Times Book Prize in current interest on Friday.
“That was even better than I expected,” said Binazir, who has attended the fair for some 15 years. The last two virtual festivals were “nice,” but they didn’t excite him.
“I mean, look at this. This is amazing,” he exclaimed. “There’s people milling around, there’s kids having a ball, you can go to an ice cream truck that serves you books instead of ice cream. Everybody here cares about books. You have all of these different booths, some of them legit, some of them kind of incredibly crack-potty. You get the full exposure… It’s good to see the tribe reassemble. It’s good to see books honored.”
Dorottya Carlo and her friend, Rachel Watson, browsed the Skylight Books booth, where Watson had purchased Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Under a White Sky” for her boyfriend.
It was their first time at the festival, but it wouldn’t be their last.
“I loved it,” said Watson, 32, from Long Beach. “We don’t get out to this part of L.A. often, so we were in the area and wanted to participate in something now that things are starting to open up again.”
For Carlo, 31, who was in town from Hawaii, it felt like “a breath of fresh air… I just keep seeing the smiling faces of people and not being wrapped up in masks. It’s just lovely.”
Elsewhere, Brad Ratliff, 63 stood in front of the “What Are You Reading?” banner. On it he’d scribbled “Schultz — Complete Peanuts Vol. 1,” Charles M. Schulz’s early cartoon strips. On behalf of a friend who couldn’t make it to the festival, he’d also written down Blythe Roberson’s “How to Date Men When You Hate Men.”
“I have been waiting for years for this event to come back,” said Ratliff, who traveled from Woodland Hills. “I’m just ecstatic by how big and wonderful it is.” He beamed.
“I just can’t stop smiling.”