May 17, 2019

Las Vegas as a literary hub? The city has a surprising history of book culture


Following the Believer Festival last month, the New York Times has announced Las Vegas’s status as a literary hub. Citing the University of Nevada’s Black Mountain Institute, which funds The Believer, and The Rogers Foundation, which funds the Black Mountain Institute, the article makes a strong case that for being the driest state in the US, Nevada is fertile ground for literary culture. (The BMI, it’s worth noting, is among the best-funded literary organizations in the world.)

We wanted to know more about the history of book culture in Nevada, so we did a little digging. Here are some nuggets we found (please pardon the gold mining metaphor—hard to resist temptation writing about the land of instant gratification!):

It was on a trip to Nevada that Samuel Clemens came up with the pen name Mark Twain—a curious choice, given the words’ nautical origins. According to the Mark Twain Museum site, riverboat men would call out “Mark Twain” after checking the depth of the water to indicate that it was at least twelve feet deep; i.e., a safe depth.

In 2001, Las Vegas became the nation’s first City of Asylum, or “safe haven for writers whose voices are muffled by censorship, or who are living with the threat of imprisonment or assassination.” The City of Asylum program’s current fellow is Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, winner of the 2016 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.

In 2008, Mark Hall-Patton became Museum Administrator of the Clark County Museum (you might recognize him as the history advisor on the hit cable show Pawn Stars). The museum is now home to Hall-Patton’s fiction collection, one of the more remarkable ones in the country: twenty thousand mass market novels set in Las Vegas, gathered over the course of two decades.

There you have it: a quick literary tour of everyone’s favorite cheese-shaped state. If we’ve sparked an interest in living and writing in Nevada, we encourage you to apply for a residential fellowship with The Believer and the Black Mountain Institute. Applications open June 1st: may you play your cards right and hit the jackpot, you ol’ aces-in-the-holes!



Liv Lansdale (@liv_actually) walks dogs in Brooklyn and is a regular contributor to MobyLives.