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June 24th, 2011 / 2:00 pm
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Dispatch from North Country: The U.P. Book Tour

I started going to the library when I was a kid. My mom took me often, let me check out as many books as I wanted. During the summer, I participated in reading programs. Back then, it was popular to have contests to see how many books you could read in a summer. There were prizes and I enjoy prizes so I would read even more voraciously than I was ordinarily wont to do. It was always such a marvel to me that you could go and borrow books and when you returned them you could get even more books, all for free. I don’t go to libraries as much as I did when I was a kid but there are few institutions that impress me more than the modern library.

On Thursday I participated in the kickoff event of the U.P. Book Tour, which will feature more than 20 events and 65 writers all over Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for the next month. The tour was organized by U.P. writer and resident Ron Riekki who has been coordinating this project for months. Before moving last summer, I lived in the U.P. for five years so it was great to come back to the area and do a bunch of literary things and participate in the first leg of the tour. The tour event I participated in was a panel discussing Michigan books at the Peter White Public Library in Marquette, MI. At a time when libraries are under attack and facing severe budget cuts across the country, it was fantastic to participate in this event at a really amazing, community-supported library. The staff was gracious and professional and the whole set up was really welcoming. If you’re ever in the U.P., the Peter White Public Library is well worth a visit. The facility is really extensive and it’s not just a library, it’s also a community center. There’s a café, a community room with its own stage, public computers and wireless Internet, a really serious children’s library with a play area that comes in really handy during the impossibly long U.P. winters, and most importantly there is, as with every library I’ve ever known, a truly passionate and dedicated staff of librarians who love nothing more than books and putting books into the hands of readers. The library is also open late. It seems so rare these days to see a library open after 5 p.m. that I had to look at the door twice. During the week, they close at 9 p.m.

As writers and readers, we spend so much time wringing our hands about the state of publishing and the future of books or lamenting the golden age of books that we forget, at times, to consider the present. However dire the situation may be, there are also really exciting things happening in the world of words. People are reading and talking and caring about books, not just in the cities but also in rural places, even those as remote as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We had a nice-sized audience and there were five of us on the panel: two independent booksellers (Snowbound Books and Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore), a librarian, and two writers. Our moderator, a former actress and writer, was a bit, shall we say, quirky. When she introduced me, she shouted, “You’re black!” I was pretty thrilled because I knew she was going to be a treat all night. She did not disappoint. I wish you all had been there.

Each panelist talked about their favorite Michigan book, favorite book by an author participating in the UP book tour, and favorite book about the U.P. I took the opportunity to talk about the two literary magazines published in the U.P., PANK and Passages North, as well as Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River* and American Salvage as my favorite Michigan book(s), Caitlin Horrock’s This Is Not Your City as a fantastic book by a tour author, and Karl Iagnemma’s On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction as my favorite book about the U.P. I also learned alot from my co-panelists and got a whole new list of books to add to my To Read list including John Smolens’s Cold, South of Superior by Ellen Airgood, Misery Bay by Steve Hamilton, Fireweed by Mildred Walker, U.P. by Ron Riekki, and The Stranger Manual (get this book) by Catie Rosemurgy, among many others. It was great to get a sense of the depth of regional literature about the U.P., and to see so many people well-versed on the subject.

One of my co-panelists, a librarian, brought a stack of books so high you could barely see her behind her little fortress. As the night went on, we heard an announcement on the overhead speaker that the library would close in ten minutes so the organizer gently suggested she send him a list of the rest of her books that he would post to his website. She was undeterred and determined to ride the panel until the wheels came off. She said, “There are of library staff here! We’re fine.” It was a fantastic, charming moment, and onward she went, telling us even more about Upper Peninsula-related books. Throughout the event, which was also covered by the local news, the audience was engaged and many people took copious notes. Afterward, most of the books we talked about were available for sale. I talked to people who were so excited to hear about new books by Michigan writers, particularly newer books. Folks were really surprised to know there were literary magazines in the U.P. and I thought it was so strange that there are people in New York who know about PANK, while there are people 100 miles away, people who follow such things, who have never heard of us. The library and both bookstores are interested in carrying the magazine so it was a valuable lesson in not forgetting to distribute locally too.

After the panel, some of us adjourned to an Irish pub and we continued talking about books and having a great time. Throughout the evening, I kept thinking that people absolutely care about books and are interested in talking about books, learning about books, and buying books. I don’t have any grand conclusions but I am reminded, every day, that there is a very vibrant literary culture in this country. The army of readers may not be as many as we’d like but they are certainly mighty and they are everywhere.

*I used Amazon links but if you’re in the U.P., most of the books we talked about on the panel are available for sale at Snowbound and Falling Rock and the booksellers will offer you great recommendations. If you’re not in the U.P., there is IndieBound.

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