Las Vegas may be famous for making them, cooking them and keeping employees off of them. But books also are something we like to read.
From Wednesday through Nov. 7, 100 writers are expected to draw 10,000 readers to the Historic Fifth Street School and three other valley locations for the ninth annual Vegas Valley Book Festival. More than 100 events, all free to the public, will spotlight adult literature, children's literature, comic books and food literature.
"It's the biggest one we've ever had by far," says festival co-producer Amber Withycombe.
"We have a lot more variety -- poetry, fiction and children's literature activities. And we have more workshops this year than we've ever had before."
Withycombe is particularly proud of a new initiative called "Feasting on Words -- A Celebration of Food and Literature," set to feature cookbook author panels and a community grill tended by local celebrity chefs on Nov. 7.
"It's the first time we're emphasizing food to this degree," she says.
Withycombe -- who, as assistant director of Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, coordinates valley literary events and fellowships -- says Las Vegas is just as bookish as the next city.
"Most authors, when they do a book tour, don't come to Las Vegas, which is crazy," she says. "Publicists and publishers don't see us as a market, for whatever reason, which isn't true at all. We have a huge senior population, and seniors read.
"But that's been slowly changing in the past five years," she adds, "with the book festival and BMI and UNLV's creative writing program inviting more writers."
The valley also flourishes on the book supply side, says Withycombe, who cites a phalanx of local authors building national reputations: Matthew O'Brien ("Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas"), Alissa Nutting ("Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls"), Donald Revell ("The Bitter Withy") and a dozen others.
"I think we're doing great for a city as young as we are," she says.
Local writers will populate the festival's various readings, discussions and workshops. For its two keynote speakers, however, the festival reached to Los Angeles for opener T.C. Boyle and Boston for closer Dennis Lehane.
"To draw an audience of 300 or 400 people, you're going to need somebody who's published at least eight or 10 books," Withycombe explains. "And you're going to find them mostly concentrated in the places those writers settle because there is so much literary activity to offer them."
This year's festival coincides with lively debate over the future of books in the electronic age. According to a 2009 report by the National Endowment For the Arts, the percentage of adults who read literature increased from 46.6 percent in 2002 to 50.2 percent in 2008. However, until 2002, it fell steadily from a high of 56.9 percent in 1982 (the first year readership was measured). So the meaning is unclear.
"Do I believe that people right now in their late 20s through their 50s -- the sweet spot of the book audience anyway -- isn't reading?" wonders Lehane. "No, but I think there's a worry about the generations coming up."
Lehane sees changing cultural priorities possibly relegating all books to the remainders bin.
"Is this new anti-literature age going to catch up to us?" he asks. "Yeah, it might."
Withycombe isn't as worried.
"It's not that people aren't reading as many books," she says. "I think they're not reading as many different kinds of books. I think that the commerce of book publishing and bookselling has necessarily had to become narrow in order for publishers, because they're publicly traded companies, to make a profit.
"And that's at the expense of readers and writers both."
On the positive side, Withycombe notes, an explosion in e-readers has stoked renewed readership. An August poll by Harris Interactive showed that 1 in 10 Americans currently owns a device such as the iPad or Kindle, and that another 12 percent plan to purchase one by year's end.
"The younger generations get so much of their information electronically," Withycombe says. "So I do think it's going to make literature available to more people more readily."
However, she adds, "I don't know how successful our book signings are going to be when there's nothing for writers to sign anymore."
The Vegas Valley Book Festival is produced by the city of Las Vegas, Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, BMI, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the local chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts and Nevada Humanities. For more information, call 229-5431 or go online to www.vegasvalleybookfestival.org.
Contact reporter Corey Levitan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0456.