Opinionista Ben Williams 5 August 2021

A visit to Las Vegas, a city that doesn’t care about books

Heading west and finding a foreboding message in the desert.

Ben Williams

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

For my vast and unexpurgated sins, I recently spent a few days in Las Vegas, a city that doesn’t care for books.

Vegas in late summer avoids proportionate description – “heaving sea of humanity” doesn’t tell the half of it. While I scurried about like an animal fearing for its life – with the Delta variant raging in the US, I was precisely that – a parade of people without horizon marched up and down The Strip in 42-degree heat.

Las Vegas/ Image: Unsplash

Many went forth maskless, shirtless, shoeless – all three – but just as many, in contrast, donned their finest raiments for the occasion, their expensive clothing glistening under the endless series of flashing screens that line Las Vegas Avenue. Some of these screens rise more than 20 storeys in height. The world has never seen this city’s like. Come the final hour of the current era – we’re speeding quickly toward it, not so? – it never will again.

Las Vegas’ main job is to make you forget. If books are vehicles of memory, and libraries are memory palaces, then Vegas rises from the desert like a palace of amnesia. The lights never dim, the entertainment never pauses, the present moment never moves into the past. Casinos famously ban clocks. Time and space are collapsed: look, there’s the New York skyline; look, there’s the Eiffel Tower; look, there’s the Great Sphinx of Giza; everything shimmering in the concussive waves of heat rising from the pavement.

I couldn’t find a replica of the Library of Alexandria, though.

In fact, everywhere I went my eyes sought in vain for the succour of a bookshelf full of – wait for it – actual books, instead of, for example, classic Coca-Cola bottles or other species of American kitsch. The best the city could muster was a set of tattered paperback westerns, propped up by a few DVDs, in the so-called business centre of my hotel. Thin pickings indeed.

Las Vegas/ Image: Unsplash

The lack of books in Las Vegas weighed on my mind. It was surely not coincidental that the place whose raison d’être is to put a stay on memories would be void of the best instrument we’ve invented for keeping them. Books don’t just furnish a room, after all. They furnish the past. Access to the past, in turn, gives us the clues we need to navigate the present.

Ah, the present. It was Camus who wrote of pandemics:

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”

He also wrote, of surviving these plagues:

“All the rest – health, integrity, purity (if you like) – is a product of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.”

During my Las Vegas sojourn, meanwhile, Mexico played the USA in the Gold Cup football final, in the stadium across the road from where I stayed, to a crowd of 65,000. On the pitch, at least, the US players avoided Camus’s lapses, taking the Cup 1-0 in extra time. Off the pitch – well, Vegas is one enormous, protoplasmic lapse, isn’t it.

Las Vegas, then: the bookless city of lapses – and, alas, the epicentre of modern popular culture. The problem confronting us lies in that “epicentre” bit. For Vegas has been beaming its ambrosia of amnesia to the world for decades. The city’s fundamental message, so successful, embedded in countless popular films, songs and other vectors, is: you can have it all. That, and: you’re never going to die.

This message has won the day: people flock to it, even during a global pandemic. I saw it with my own rather boggled eyes. People flocking to the lapse. It’s intoxicating.

So, you ask me: What, are you going to blame Covid on Las Vegas and its lack of books?

Yes. Why not? If Vegas were premised on the Library of Alexandria (equal wonder of the world to the monuments so tawdrily debauched on The Strip), and a grand palace of memory rose from the desert instead of cathedrals of fugue and stupor, things would surely be different. Everywhere. DM/ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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