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No place like home: Ruminating on reading in the Vegas Valley

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With the Black Mountain Institute, a vibrant community of writers and the Vegas Valley Book Fest, Las Vegas’ literary scene is thriving.
Photo: Leila Navidi
Molly O'Donnell

My dad always says that readers can close their eyes and go anywhere they like whenever they like, that they have the material to fuel their imaginations, so they don’t have to feel tied to one spot. Although he was probably just paraphrasing Einstein’s “imagination will take you everywhere,” after a lifetime of being moved to places I’ve never been by words written by people I’ve never met, I have to agree. Yet reading also gives you some insight into the world right around you, allowing you to both see reality and envision possibility.

It isn’t novel to use Las Vegas’ arid landscape and physical isolation as a metaphor for the state of culture in the Valley. What is novel is the dawning realization that this metaphor couldn’t be further from the truth. When insiders reflect on culture to outsiders, they often seem defensive and perhaps a little bitter about Sin City’s reputation as an intellectual wasteland. After living here awhile, we all begin to understand this position. When people visit, they stand inside casinos and marvel about how crazy it must be to live “here.” A local’s first impulse is to say, “Well, I don’t really live in a casino.”

This frustration doesn’t arise out of local blindness to the city’s serious challenges, nor does it stem from a rejection of the fun to be had on and off the Strip. This feeling wells up in us because Las Vegas’ literary landscape has more in common with a budding vista than a desert scene. It might be hard to fathom, but I had to come to Las Vegas from the East Coast to get in touch with what my husband refers to as the Las Vegas literati.

Let’s think about it. We have a book festival that would make many cities envious, bringing internationally renowned authors to town like Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon and, this year, A Visit From the Goon Squad’s Jennifer Egan. (We couldn’t even keep Dave Hickey away this year.) We have the Black Mountain Institute presenting intimate evenings with the likes of MacArthur “genius grant” fellow Junot Díaz. We have local writers like Maile Chapman contributing to works on our town in books like the just-released Wish You Were Here. We have monthly NeonLit readings where graduate students share promising work. We have great secondhand bookstores like Dead Poet and high-end book dealers like Bauman. We have a vibrant community of compelling journalists and bloggers, covering everything from politics to arts.

We also have something the media often misses: a thriving community college and four-year system of higher education. And, no, I’m not kidding. After three years teaching at UNLV, I can safely say that many local students are tremendously impressive and gifted readers. So much for claims that they come out of a failed school system, especially given annual events like CCSD’s Reading Week, which brings our community into the classroom to read to the students.

Maybe the unique challenges and difficult economic circumstances—not to mention the fact that literary Las Vegas can be elusive—should make us even more impressed with ourselves. There are a lot of locals very interested in the written word and its impact on everything from the routine to the lofty. This means that when local readers shut their eyes to use the material of their imaginations, more and more they can end up right here back at home.

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