Celebrating Books and Reyner Banham

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

I took a walk around the campus at UCLA yesterday to look at preparations for the Festival of Books this weekend. And it was a little sobering.

Don't get me wrong. The festival is still the biggest book event around, and the Los Angeles Times should be admired profusely for keeping it going with all the distractions and cutbacks at the paper.

This is the 14th year, and rows of shiny white tents still sprawl all over campus, waiting to be filled on Saturday morning by sleepy eyed booksellers.

And, a few hours later, by as many as 100,000 book readers.

All the browsing and panels are free, as usual. That's as long as you don't have to park at UCLA, which has gone up to $9 this year.

But I couldn't help but notice some of the big names on the local book scene that won't be there.

Dutton's Brentwood, of course, dropped out last year after being forced to close.

Forced out by the hard new realities of the book business.

This year, the Cook's Library is missing from its usual prime spot on the main row outside Royce Hall. The Third Street shop that is a favorite of LA foodies is already well into its final clearance sale. Soon, it will be gone too.

Borders Books used to have a major presence at the festival – not any more. The Hennessey + Ingalls tent isn't in its usual spot, and I've been told they aren't coming this year.

It costs booksellers a lot of money to display at the Book Festival, and for more and more shops that's money they don't have.

The campus transformation that goes on all week isn't quite so total this year. There are fewer tents, and even the Times Book Prize ceremony that used to bring a big crowd of authors and fans into Royce Hall has been downsized.

The prizes will be announced instead at a scaled-back, private event tonight at the Times building downtown.

Come Saturday morning, though, the tents will be full of enthusiastic fans and for two days the book will be celebrated.

It goes on not just at the festival itself, but at salons and author parties around town.

Last night at the Regency Club, high above Westwood Village, UC Press threw its soiree.

There was a reading by poet Cole Swensen and schmoozing over appetizers among authors, editors, agents and friends of the press.

Everyone was given a new edition of Reyner Banham's landmark study Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, still as penetrating now as when Banham completed his observations on the city in 1971.

The 2009 edition begins with a foreword from architect Joe Day who says Four Ecologies functions less today as a primer on Los Angeles than a companion to books such as Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays and Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49.

Neither Los Angeles nor Banham read the same way now as in 1971, Day says. That sounds like a good enough reason to reissue the book.

The Festival of Books provides opportunities for a whole weekend of conversations about the meanings of books. And about the city where we live.

It's one of the fun things about the festival -- authors are walking all over the place and you can just strike up a chat.

I'll be there, on the main concourse outside Royce Hall, signing books at the Angel City Press booth. Stop by from 12 to 2 on Saturday or Sunday and say hello. I'm sure we'll find something to talk about.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.