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Is Las Vegas literate?

Call us America’s dumbest city if you want, but our book fest tells another story

The wind was hellish. Nobody wanted to be outside. Only a small crowd stood around the booths at the Henderson Promenade to flip through books, meet authors and listen to poetry that day in 2003. Even without the wind, holding a book festival here was risky. The common opinion: People in Las Vegas didn’t read, didn’t own books and wouldn’t bother celebrating them. Additionally, getting locals out of their homes to convene in unfamiliar public spaces was an organizer’s nightmare. Certainly, a book festival wouldn’t thrive here.

Yet in 2002, Nevada Humanities founded the Vegas Valley Book Festival. In 2005, the group teamed with the City of Las Vegas and moved the event from Henderson to Downtown, where attendance has grown 20 percent every year, according to festival chair Richard Hooker. Last year, 10,000 people showed up. Each year the events and pre-events expand to reach broader audiences, organizers get more creative and more partnerships form. This year’s pre-festival lineup has already drawn 2,000 locals, Hooker says.

So let the rest of America laugh at our recent designation as the nation’s dumbest city. Yes, we have serious problems: high rates of illiteracy and high-school dropout, a low percentage of residents with college degrees. But that’s not our whole story, and our little book festival is a growing testament to more. As a community, we’ve turned out to see John Irving, Tom Robbins, Chuck Palahniuk, Sarah Vowell, Walter Mosley, Rudolfo Anaya and Keith Knight, among others. We’ve ridden a double-decker bus through Downtown, stopping at galleries for poetry readings. Local writers contribute to anthologies and the Black Mountain Institute joins in. We know we can improve our community by reading more and reading to others. It won’t fix all our problems, but it’s a step for our young city.

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