It took an editor to be entertaining

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The Writer’s League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference had its moments of inspiration and brilliance. More than 30 minutes of them coursed over the crowd at the luncheon speech of Saturday, the only full day of the event. Lew Wasserman, who founded the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and was book editor for the LA Times and the New Republic, reminded us all why we’re writing and pushing that big rock up the hill to get it published.

“Ideas matter,” Wasserman said to begin, pointing at the book and the printed word as still the best way to transmit an idea to mankind. But he used a speech to spark us, one that he obviously wrote but seemed to deliver with little reference to any notes. Wasserman believed in what he jested was “a declarative polemic.”

“Yes, books do have a future,” he said. We have all these alternative devices” to tell a story — the Internet, TV, movies, video games — “but more trees are being cut down than ever. 75,000 book titles were printed in 1996. Last year 180,000 were published. “The good news is that books will continue to flourish,” he said. The bad news: there are fewer readers than ever.

“Books still retain the patina of authority,” he said, “yet to be rivalled by any electronic device.” Wasserman noted that the king of the electronic message, Bill Gates, still turned to a publishing house to create his “book-like object,” a phrase Wasserman used to describe anything printed, whether by print-on-demand, self-published or produced from a traditional press.

It’s up to the writers of books to keep the arts of solitude and reflection from being overwhelmed in our current society, he said. Reading, Wasserman said, “is almost an anti-social act, because it lets us enter the zone of encouraged independent critical thinking.”

Whew. And you thought you were just writing a funny mystery with some quirky characters, an item the agents at the conference said they were seeking. No, you’re keeping a type of thinking alive and contributing to us all. Keep writing.

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