Defying reputation, Las Vegas has a bookish side


Generalizing is a dicey business, especially in Las Vegas.

The latest flimsy limb onto which a generalizer has scampered: the intellectual sophistication of Las Vegans. Last week, Las Vegas Sun reporter Brendan Buhler took a look at the most popular books checked out from local libraries and found the literary merit wanting.

He's right about one thing: James Patterson, the library's most popular author, isn't much of a writer, even when he hires other people to type under his name.

But to generalize about Las Vegans based on the popularity of James Patterson is quite a leap. Patterson, in fact, is enormously popular all over the country. Las Vegans certainly don't embrace Patterson's low-brow prose in significantly greater numbers than readers in other cities.

The point, though, is that books are just like other aspects of pop culture: Junky stuff often rises to the top. It has always been thus. The popularity of James Patterson in local libraries is Swiss-cheese evidence that Las Vegas is bereft of people who read quality books.

How do I know? Well, here are a few tidbits to chew on:

-- The Las Vegas Valley has nine large new bookstores -- five Borders and four Barnes & Nobles. It also has four smaller new bookstores in local malls. That's a lot of commercial square footage dedicated (mostly) to books. And as a book junkie, I can testify that all of these stores have customers, and I can further report that the books for sale include many authors other than James Patterson.

-- The valley has a solid dozen used book shops, and all of them make a living selling books of all kinds. Since I frequent these places, I can tell you that the customers aren't all seeking James Patterson's back catalog. But don't take my word for it.

"We have our recreational readers who read mysteries and romances and thrillers, but we also have a great quantity of customers who buy the good stuff," says Anne DeVere, owner of Plaza Books at Eastern Avenue and Warm Springs Road. "I'm really delighted with the college-age students who are coming in for poetry and classic literature. We have quite a few students who haunt the poetry and literature sections."

DeVere's customers also buy quality books from the nonfiction aisles.

"Among my male clientele especially, I have quite a few military history readers," she says. "They will read military history, Southwestern history, Americana. That's a good seller here. Ancient history and more regional world history tends to be a younger reading group. We just have a great mix of readers of both fiction and nonfiction."

-- Most of the county's public libraries have dedicated ample space to selling used books, and people are constantly scanning the shelves and taking home a diverse range of titles. Before a recent internal political shakeup changed the management of the library bookstores, volunteers reported that used book sales in area libraries totaled $7,200 per week.

-- The Review-Journal publishes 12 blogs on its Web site. One of them is the Book Nook, written by several staffers and guest contributors (including me). It includes news and reviews about books. It was the newspaper's third most popular blog between July 13 and Aug. 12.

Of course, this wasn't quite enough evidence to make my case. I needed something more. So I called Robb Morss, deputy director of public services for the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, and asked him for a different list from the one my fellow scribe at the Sun requested.

Instead of focusing on the most popular books, I compiled a list of about 20 titles -- fiction and nonfiction -- published over the past couple of years that are widely considered to be of high quality. All of these books have received critical praise and awards. They are what DeVere calls "the good stuff." I asked Morss to find out how many times these books have been checked out since they were put on the shelves.

This, I would argue, is a more interesting way to gauge the intellectual sophistication of Las Vegas. If nobody is checking out these quality books, then perhaps Mr. Buhler has a point.

Alas, my suspicions were correct. Most of the titles I sent to Morss came back as having been amply checked out by local readers. For example: Khaled Hosseini's 2007 novel "A Thousand Splendid Suns" has been checked out 1,441 times in regular book format, 119 times in large-print format and 184 times in audio format. Cormac McCarthy's 2007 novel "The Road" has been checked out 751 times in regular format, 80 times in large print and 193 times in audio format. Michael Chabon's 2007 novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" has been checked out 520 times in regular format, 70 times in large print and 139 times in audio format.

The nonfiction books I submitted haven't done quite as well. Still, Nathaniel Philbrick's 2006 history "Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War" has been checked out 169 times in regular format, 50 times in large print and 134 times in audio format. And Jeffrey Toobin's 2007 book "The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court" has been checked out 165 times in regular format and 43 times in audio format. Edwidge Danticat's 2007 memoir "Brother, I'm Dying" has been checked out 51 times in regular format and 41 times in audio.

Every book I listed had been checked out at least 47 times.

I couldn't resist the temptation to find out how my latest book, focused on the Las Vegas years of Howard Hughes, has fared in local libraries. I'm pleased to report that it's been checked out 97 times since it hit the shelves in February.

Clearly, a healthy number of Las Vegans have reading tastes that extend well beyond the vacuous scribblings of James Patterson.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is publisher of Las Vegas CityLife, an alternative newsweekly owned by the same company as the Review-Journal. He also is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." Check out his new blog at www.howardhughesblog.com. His column appears Sunday.

 

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