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2011 Festival of Books Highlights

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The move from the campus of UCLA to USC for the L.A. Times Festival of Books could not dampen the enthusiastic attendance for the largest American book fair. Everything in life is a tradeoff: The congested 110 Freeway to the USC campus versus less stairs for children and the elderly to walk.

Flashbacks of two days of literary wanderings among the throng of 150,000:

Southern California's own T. Jefferson Parker (Border Lords) has done his homework in typical, assiduous fashion on the Mexican drug cartels. In an "Organized Crime" panel, he spoke of the $50 billion Mexico drug trade and emphasizing the word "complicity," mentioned that 80 percent of those illicit mind-altering substances are consumed by the USA. He also informed the audience that "narco-corridos" are songs commissioned by Mexican drug lords to sing their praises in the culture, prompting Parker to wonder whether "narco-novelas" are far behind.

During Saturday's science panel, Terry McDermott (101 Theory Drive: A Neuroscientist's Quest for Memory) alluded to ampakines, compounds which can radically improve memory, not just for sufferers of dementia but potentially for us all. And yet, McDermott claims corporate battles over patents, marketing and profits are holding up the availability of ampakines in the medical field.

A well-attended discussion on the work and startling suicide of the remarkable literary fiction master David Foster Wallace was ably conducted by the Times' David Ulin. Michael Pietsch, Wallace's editor at Little, Brown, and Bonnie Nadell, his agent, reviewed how 3000 pages of text for his last novel, The Pale King, developed over more than a decade, with rewritten sections and even handwritten notes, was assembled to provide a version of the book to the public. Biographer D.T. Max also discussed the laser focus Wallace had in listening to others, something I found utterly true and memorable when I met him after an interview at the Writers Guild Theatre. And only from someone like Wallace could you hear the following sentence, discussing a delay in working on The Pale King: "I first have to write this little thing on the history of infinity."

The Sunday science panel featured the redoubtable K.C. Cole who recalled words of her book subject Frank Oppenheimer, inventor of San Francisco's Exploratorium and brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer. When his loftiest ideas were questioned by others, who insisted Frank was not considering practically the "real world," his reply was worthy of a personal mantra: "It's not the real world. It's the world we made up."

The Wall Street Journal's Jeffrey Zaslow, on a panel regarding ghostwriting and collaboration, advised journalists to sometimes ignore the suggestion of editors and rely on one's own instincts. After all, it is what led Zaslow to co-writing The Last Lecture. Computer scientist Randy Pausch's inspiring talk at Carnegie-Mellon, "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," was tragically followed by pancreatic cancer. Zaslow's editor advised him to wait until after the lecture and see what the reception to it was. Zaslow instead drove from Detroit to Pittsburgh and from that decision, was driven to co-write the book before Pausch died, a book that has reached millions of hearts and minds.