I have been critical in the past of the seeming lack of culture in Las Vegas. The perception that it is a crass, consumer driver, environmental nightmare of a place in many ways holds true. But, at least, they make no pretense to the contrary.
That’s not to say there isn’t anything intelligent going on here. They hold a modest and growing First Friday for the art galleries every month. There is one independent bookstore in Vegas (located in a casino, natch), although rumor has it it is on the verge of closing. And there is some fascinating mid-century architecture. And, I am sure, there are plenty of other things going on that I have yet to discover during my first year here.
This past week was the Las Vegas Valley Book Festival, and I was fortunate enough to see Michael Chabon give the closing keynote at the Clark County Library. Unfortunately, I had not heard anything about the festival until seeing an ad that Chabon was going to speak and I was under the false impression that he was giving the opening and not the closing keynote. That could partly be attributed to my lack of careful reading of the ad and partly because there was more buzz for the concomitant Professional Bull Riding event. To be fair, back when I lived in Philadelphia, there was more buzz for the Wing Bowl than for any literary event. All I know is that next year, I’ll have to keep my eyes open for the Book Festival.
For a long time, Michael Chabon had been someone whose work appealed to me, but until a friend gave me a copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh for my birthday last year, I had not read anything. I enjoyed Mysteries but was not overly impressed. It is, as they say, a good first novel. But after seeing him speak, I definitely want to delve more deeply into his work. I was quite moved and amused by what he read that night: Conquering the Wilderness: Imaginative Imperialism and the Invasion of Legoland.
I think one reason I was impressed with this piece (which does not seem to be published) is that Chabon is only a few years older than I am so his reflections on growing up resonated with my experience. The crux of his essay is his analysis on how different growing up today is than it was during the 60s and 70s. He laments the loss of unstructured time now that so much of a child’s day is planned and protected. He notes how kids are no longer free to wander the neighborhood and are instead driven directly from place to place, from event to event. I certainly remember having the freedom to ride my bike where I wanted, to spend all day in Burholme Park and the woods that ran behind Fox Chase Cancer Center, to go to anyone of my friend’s houses on a whim. The only usual restriction was that I needed to be home before the streetlights came on.
Another reason I warmed up to Chabon’s reading so quickly is that he mentioned Wawa early in his essay. Since moving to Las Vegas, I have become sentimental about all things east coast. Perhaps I imagined this, but I recall Chabon pausing as he uttered that word that must sound so strange to lifelong desert dwellers. It seemed that when he paussed, he looked around the audience to see if anyone caught the reference. I was with a couple of other ex-east coasters, and we bristled with excitement when he touched on this little piece of “home.” But we were off to the side and out of Chabon’s sight.
Because of the Wawa reference, his tales from his childhood, and many of his pop culture references, Chabon felt like kin, both generationally and geographically. I’ll certainly be adding his other books to my big and ever-growing list of things I want to read.