If you love books, you understand that you never have too many of them. It’s just that sometimes, you need a bigger house.
That’s more or less the theory behind BookMania, which runs through Thursday in Traverse City.
When the National Writers Series brings renowned authors to the historic City Opera House every month or so and people pay to hear them speak, it’s good.
When the NWS brings five writers to town across eight days, plus jazz musician Ben Sidran, it’s better.
It’s also another sign that Traverse City is becoming the Bethlehem of literacy.
With a population of only 14,674 at the last census, it has five bookstores, or about as many per capita as we have wig shops. Plus, there are three more booksellers in nearby towns.
“It’s unusual,” says author and NWS founder Doug Stanton, understatedly and with a certain amount of civic pride. “I feel like I’ve snuck into a board meeting and been able to recite a poem.”
BookMania’s first three events drew capacity crowds, despite an advertising budget of pretty much zero.
Benjamin Busch found the perfect book to use as a blade in a promotional video for BookMania, which runs through Thursday. (Photo: Novum Productions)
The big promotional push was three playful short videos starring author, actor, artist and Iraq veteran Benjamin Busch of Reed City, whose splendid memoir “Dust to Dust” will take you uncomfortably close to scenes civilians don’t care to think about.
In one of the BookMania spots, Busch wakes up covered in books, bathes in books and even shaves with a book. The blade is a “Star Wars” novel called “Razor’s Edge”; he raced into one of the downtown bookstores and asked for something with “Razor” in the title, and the clerk was able to oblige.
“We’re talking about books around here,” says Stanton, “as much as we’re talking about football.”
Authors on deck
The first of BookMania’s remaining stars is Bonnie Jo Campbell, who writes novels and short stories while raising donkeys near Kalamazoo. She’ll be interviewed on stage Tuesday by Thomas Lynch, the poet and mortician from Milford.
Wednesday it’s Paula McLain (“The Paris Wife”), interviewed by Busch, and on Thursday, retired diplomat Jack Segal will moderate for Sarah Chayes (“Thieves of State”), who settled in Kandahar in 2002 and hired local Afghans to manufacture skin care products.
Tickers remain available at nationalwritersseries.org. Also, tables remain available at nearby restaurants offering BookMania discounts.
“The point,” Stanton says, is to put writing on stage “and make it seem as natural as any other activity we do in Traverse City. It’s working.”
He was speaking from outside a coffee shop where he was mainlining espresso and goading himself to produce his daily 2,000 words toward a novel involving the Vietnam war. On the other side of the road, whitecaps rolled across Grand Traverse Bay.
Bonnie Jo Campbell writes and raises donkeys in Comstock. (Photo: Chris Magson)
Stanton has written two nonfiction bestsellers, one about the World War II sinking of the USS Indianapolis and one about a military campaign in Afghanistan.
He and Sebastian Junger (“The Perfect Storm”) report similar experiences on book tours in Michigan. At a Metro Detroit stop, each drew about 50 people. In Traverse City, the crowds hit 450.
“We’re not a university town,” Stanton points out. “We’re not even a metropolitan environment. I haven’t quite figured this out.”
Maybe it’s as simple as this:
The more people read books, the more more people read more books.
Or maybe there’s something in the whitecaps.
Busch at work
Ninety minutes south of Traverse City, the star of the promotional videos is back at his keyboard.
Busch says he’s been “writing a collection of poems for about nine years, which I am still trying to figure out why I haven’t got quite right.”
He’s also turning two of his screenplays into novels and working on an article for Harper’s Magazine.
It’s a heavy load to pull, but it’s what writers are compelled to do.
Given a chance, most of them are also compelled to talk about it.
In Traverse City, fortunately, there’s a place for people who are compelled to listen.