Saturday, June 02, 2007

Day 2 of the NYC Book Expo: Christopher Hitchens & Independent Book Publishers....

The 2007 Book Expo is huge and has 5000 booths -- so how does one even begin to get a handle on all the book-related activities going on without getting a headache or a panic attack? Just walking up and down the aisles here is like a combination of rush-hour on a subway and a Macy's post-Thanksgiving Day sale -- crowded and very confusing. But then, luckily, I discovered a sweet, quiet oasis -- sort like an eye in the hurricane -- in the Independent Publishers Group aisle. They represent small presses by acting as their distributor.

Next, I looked at what each small press was offering -- and I really liked a lot of their stuff. Yesterday, I had talked with someone in the press room about how to flog my book and she had said, "Don't just spam everyone at the Expo. Walk through the exhibits and just look for books that you yourself like. Just walk the floor today. And then tomorrow come back and talk to those publishers that you liked. Only then should you give them your information. Look at this as a job interview. Focus in. Sell yourself."

That's good advice. But I really have trouble selling myself and as for going on job interviews? My idea of the worst circle of Hell in Dante's inferno is going on job interviews. So when I stumbled onto the small press area, I was really happy. These people were easy to talk with. And also they had books that I actually wanted to read!

First I chit-chatted with a rep from Cyan Press and he gave me a free copy of "High tea in Mosul," which was right up my alley, having just been to Iraq (BTW, I just found out that I'm NEVER gonna be allowed to embed back in Iraq. Ever.) And I also got a book called, "The Brotherhood of Eternal Love," a history of LSD from back in the 1960s and Timothy Leary and prescription LSD made by Sandoz Labs. That Sandoz was amazing. But I digress.

Next I visited ECW Press and talked with their rep. And their books won my heart also. And I got a copy of "the Masked Rider," written by rock-star Neil Peart, all about bicycling in West Africa. And a copy of "Four More Wars!!" by political cartoonist Mike Luckovich and a copy of "Finding Lost," a book that I REALLY need so that I can watch "Lost" on TV and not look so completely clueless.

By this time, I had accumulated almost my own weight in books and was dragging them all around behind me like the albatross in the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. But it was time to go hear Christopher Hitchens speak so me and my four bags of books dragged ourselves all over the convention center looking for the mysterious Room 1E105. And I finally found it, hidden away in the second basement in a tiny little room, all jam-packed with Hitchens enemies and fans. Oh, crap. I'm late. I hate that.

Picture me, with four bags of books, all huddled in the middle aisle, madly taking notes. Not a pleasant sight.

So. Who exactly is Christopher Hitchens? He's a writer for Vanity Fair who, according to Flak Magazine, "has made a career out of assailing big fish, hook, line, and sinker, including Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, Henry Kissinger, Noam Chomsky, and now God." And, also according to Flak, "In a chapter titled 'Revelation: The Nightmare of the 'Old' Testament,' Hitchens is puzzled that a book which condones genocide, slavery, rape, indiscriminate massacre and the murder of 'witches,' homosexuals and disobedient children is widely endorsed as a proper foundation for morality." This talk oughta be good.

"I think a lot of evangelicals," said Hitchens, "do good work. On the subject of child slavery, Darfur and drug trafficking, they are doing a lot. And they are the only ones helping people who have escaped from North Korea. North Korea is the most religious place in the world. I've been there. Now I know what a Christian paradise looks like."

Then Hitchens talked about a challenge he's dreamed up. "I have a contest. I haven't figured out what the prize is yet. It could be sex with me...." Everyone laughed. "Here's the contest: To come up with a religious statement which could not be made by an atheist." I think he meant a religious statement of moral values. "For instance, take the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr's moral points had already been made by the seculars. Even the Bible speaks in favor of slavery." Hitchens was talking really fast. I hope I'm getting all this down right -- even though I'm not really sure that I would want to go out and actually win the contest.... "The case against slavery was complete while Christians were still profiting from it."

"If people take your book as gospel...." said the narrator. Everyone laughed again.

"Let me give you an example," Hitchens continued. "Take the cartoon precedent in Copenhagen. There was an assault on Danish embassies as a result. Yet not one editor in America would print the cartoons because they were afraid of religion." No one came out against murder and mayhem as a result. Even the Vatican said the Danish paper should have shown more tolerance.

"People say, 'you must respect my faith.' Why? That they believe things without proof? Good for them. But I'm not that way." Mad settlers on the West Bank, the Islamic extremists in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, and fundamentalists here in America make Hitchens' life miserable and he wishes that they would just all go away. "Those people have a death wish," he said. "And they keep pushing and pushing confrontations that will lead to Armegeddon. A death wish."

Then the formal talk was over and some of us gathered around to hear him talk informally. "What are the chances of the Virgin Birth being right?" Hitchens asked. "You might as well believe in unicorns." He also commented about religious spiritualists. "I've met people who I don't THINK are conscious frauds."

One Christian fundamentalist kept egging him on to repent but she finally gave up in disgust when he said, "Holy water doesn't do any harm but doesn't do you any good either." Then a scientist wanted to discuss the Big Bang with him. Hitchens answered, "The thought that the universe is finite or infinite to me is ungraspable."

And of course I slipped in my question. "I like religion because it offers the hope that Mankind will evolve into a higher state of consciousness," I said -- the hope that someday we will give up evil and greed and war and all that.

Hitchens answered me on a high note before he was whisked away by his publisher's rep to go sign autographs or something. "We are still evolving. The brain is still evolving. We are not Nature's last word."

"But what if Humans destroy themselves before we have a chance to evolve?" I replied.

"I am gravely afraid that they will," he said.