BRATTLEBORO -- It can seem like an age of anxiety for bibliophiles.
Tectonic shifts in the publishing industry, closures of independent and chain bookstores, the dominance of the digital world, the pittances paid to authors you hear about all this, and you wonder what the future of the book is. Google on "Are books an endangered species?" and you get 44 million hits.
Little wonder then, that the question on people's lips is "Can we save books?"
Turns out, that's the wrong question. Real as those worries are, the right thing to ask may be "Can books save us?"
Sandy Rouse has a notion they can. At least that was guiding her in the early months of the year, as she began to assemble the lineup for the 12th annual Brattleboro Literary Festival, which opens tonight and continues through Sunday at several locations in and around downtown Brattleboro.
"Back in the spring, as you may recall, the world was not a pretty place. It was right after Newtown and right up to the Boston Marathon bombing," said Rouse, who serves as festival director.
People needed bolstering, and she found the right author with the right book to do that. Larry Tye, a journalist and non-fiction writer had just finished "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero."
Celebrating his 75th birthday, Superman may be just a cartoon character to some, but Tye found much more than that. Our most enduring superhero can tell us a lot about our history and our present, including our need right now for some straightforward, old-fashioned, unadorned heroes.
"I think we need him now in the way that they gave him to us in the movie (2013 summer blockbuster ‘Man of Steel'). He came back as a hero who was trying to get back to basics. I think he went back to the decent middle-American life (his creators) gave us in the 1930s," said Tye. "For every generation, Superman has given us precisely the hero we needed.
"Superman is a mirror, or a lens, in terms of our values and our aspirations," Tye continued. "Who doesn't think within ourselves, if we were able to look beyond our clumsy Clark Kent exterior, we have a hero within us?"
Certainly, for three days anyway, there will be a slew of literary heroes among us. The Brattleboro Literary Festival features more than 50 authors from all over American, writing in all styles, genres, media and publishing platforms. There are novelists and slam poets, biographers and bloggers, memoirists and essayists, poets and pod casters, teachers and editors.
Together, and with the added voices of amateur authors, young writers, artists, performers, publishers and others, they will be featured 45 events, including readings, panel discussions, local writer showcases and some more unconventional offerings - Literary Death Match, anyone? How about some Flash Fiction? Or the T.P. James Write Like the Dickens event? Or a collaborative exhibit of video artists and writers? Or a poetry slam?
Local fans of the Brattleboro Literary Festival and longtime visitors from out of town already know about the dizzying array of authors and the depth and quality of festival readings and events. But the word is getting out to a wider audience.
In August, Writer's Circle selected the Brattleboro festival as one of the top five upcoming book and literary festivals, joining ones in cities like Portland, Ore., Brooklyn, N.Y., Arlington, Va., and Vancouver.
All the events are free, and nearly all take place in downtown Brattleboro. For more information, visit www.brattleboroliteraryfestival.org.
If all that doesn't make us feel a bit like books can help us leap tall buildings in a single bound, at least it might help us to see how books can bolster us as we go about our lives.
"We're trying to expand people's borders. That's one of the things reading does," said Rouse. "People get caught up in the day-to-day, and they never stop to think that it could be different. I think books help you maintain perspective."
Introducing readers to new writers helps broaden that perspective, and that's one of the main purposes of the literary festival. This year's authors come from all walks of life and all kinds of life experience. Some are well-known and well-established, winners of Pushcart Prizes and nominees for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. They've received countless other awards and prestigious fellowships and hold college professorships. And they write about the most intriguing array of subjects.
This year's festival authors have covered Astronauts Wives, Founding Fathers and Peabody Sisters. They've written about true crime, fictional murders and women writing from prison. They've written"A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl" and "Cowboys Are My Weakness." They've penned "Drinking with Men" and "Breakfast with Buddha." They gave us "The Long Goodbye" and "I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place." They've taken us to "Hitlerland," "Pilgrim's Wilderness" and Grub Street. And they include the former Poet Laureate of New Hampshire, the current and former Poets Laureate of Northampton, Mass., and the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn.
The festival begins with three special events Thursday night. At 7 p.m., at Brooks Memorial Library, Vermont Reads Poetry 180 features local poets reading selections of other poets' work from the Vermont Reads selection "Poetry 180," as well as their own work. At 7 p.m., at Landmark College in Putney, Kristopher Jansma leads a poetry slam. And at 7:30 p.m., at the Center for Digital Art in the Cotton Mill, it's the fourth annual Words and Images exhibition, featuring collaborations between writers and video artists.
Friday's events feature readings starting at 7 p.m., plus the return of Literary Death Match at 8:30 at the River Garden, featuring host Adrian Todd Zuniga and a panel of judges including Tom Bodett, who will judge the work of four writers in readings of seven minutes or less.
On Saturday, readings run from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church, the Hooker-Dunham Theater, New England Youth Theatre, Brooks Memorial Library and the Robert H. Gibson River Garden in downtown Brattleboro.
Saturday's special events include "Who's Reading It First?" talk about editors and the editing process at 11:30 a.m., a Young Writer's Project showcase at noon, Write Action readings at 12:15 p.m. and 7 p.m.; a showcase of Green Writer's Press at 4:15 p.m.; and a Flash Fiction event featuring readings of works of no more than 1,000 words at 5:30 p.m.
In addition, for fans of crime writing and fiction, Mystery on Main Street is holding readings all afternoon on Saturday, starting with true crime writer Harold Schechter at noon, followed by novelists Michael Nethercott at 1:15 p.m., Hilary Davidson at 2:30 p.m., and Archer Mayor at 4 p.m.
Sunday readings run from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with special events including a Write Action reading at 1:30 p.m., and the intriguing T.P. James writing event at 11 a.m. The T. P. James Writing Contest celebrates both the writings of Charles Dickens and the audacity of T.P. James, Brattleboro's own self-professed "spirit pen of Dickens." Dickens died before he could complete his final novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," and his readers were left with a strong desire for an ending. The "complete" version of Edwin Drood was published by James on Halloween in 1873, and more than 30,000 copies were sold. At the Brooks Memorial Library, contestants will attempt to complete the next scene in the T. P. James/Charles Dickens novel, "The Adventure of Bockley Wickleheap." The partial text of this second novel was discovered this year by Jeanne Walsh and Rolf Parker-Houghton. A prize of $250 will be awarded to the most convincing short chapter written by hand during this event. Tom Ragle, poet and past president of Marlboro College, will select the final winner of this event. Visit the www.universityofbrattleboro.com.
Another Sunday special event is "Reaching Out: Building Communities of Readers and Writers," which focuses at 12:30 p.m. on the innovative ways writers connect with their audiences and each other.
"It's about how writers are increasing the book the community. It's about the idea of keeping literature alive and keeping people interested," said Rouse.
Fans of fiction will get a chance to hear David Abrams (the Iraq War novel "Fobbit"), Jami Attenburg ( "The Middlesteins"), Megan Mayhew Bergman ("Birds of a Lesser Paradise"), Chris Bohjalian ("The Light in the Ruins"), Amy Brill ("The Movement of Stars"), Christopher Castellani ("All This Talk of Love," a book that he finished while staying at the Latchis Hotel), David Gilbert ("Remote Feed," "& Sons"), Pam Houston ("Cowboys Are My Weakness"), "Kristopher Jansma ("The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards"), Roland Merullo ("Breakfast with Buddha"), Eleanor Morse ("White Dog Fell from the Sky"), Roxana Robinson ("Cost" and "Sparta"), Jacqueline Sheehan ("Truth,""Lost & Found" and "Picture This"), Bonnie ZoBell ( "The Whack Job Girls") and Steve Yarborough ("Realm of Last Chances").
Also for fiction fans is Christine Schutt, who was a Pulitzer Prize Fiction finalist in 2009 for "All Souls" and National Book Award finalist in 2004 for "Florida."
"She's a great writer. She's a writer's writer," said Rouse.
A younger fiction writer to watch is Alexis Smith, whose first novel, "Glaciers" has captured the attention of critics. "It's a great little book," said Rouse.
Non-fiction fans will enjoy Tom Folsom ("The Mad Ones," "Hopper: A Journey Into the American Dream"), Tom Kizzia ("Pilgrim's Wilderness"), Lily Koppel ("The Astronaut Wives Club"), Megan Marshall ("The Peabody Sisters," "Margaret Fuller: A New American Life"), Andrew Nagorski ("Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power"), Howard Norman ("I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place"), Megan O'Rourke ("The Long Goodbye"), Rosie Schaap ("Drinking with Men"), Daniel Smith ("Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety"), Walter Stahr ( "John Jay: Founding Father" and "Seward: Lincoln's Indispensible Man") and Larry Tye ("Superman," "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend").
Authors of books for children and young adults include Jo Knowles (young adult novels "Lessons from a Dead Girl," "Jumping Off Swings"), Michelle Knudsen ("Library Lion," "Big Mean Mike") and Tanya Lee Stone ("Courage Has No Color").
The festival's commitment to poetry remains strong. Nearly a third of this year's authors have published works of poetry, although many are omnivorous creators who write in other forms as well.
This year, Pioneer Valley poet and organizer Lea Banks took over as the coordinator of the festival's poetry. She said she tries to pick poets whose work she admires and who will go over well with audiences.
"All the poets that I invited are good speakers, good readers or there's something about them that attracts audiences," she said.
A tireless advocate for poetry, Banks hopes that festival-goers will experience that wonderful moment when they discover a writer who really touches them.
"It doesn't matter to me who it is I'm introducing to somebody for the first time ... just introducing them is a big thrill," she said.
She urged people who may not read a lot of poetry to try it out at the festival.
"I realize poetry is a hard sell. That's why I'm so pleased when somebody who is not a poet or not a reader of poetry comes to a reading and loves it," she said. "I tell people, ‘Take a chance on poetry. Just come.'"
Poets at the festival include James Arthur, Sophie Cabot Black, Tina Chang, Patrick Donnelly, Amy Dryansky, Ross Gay, Patricia Fargnoli, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Kimiko Hahn, Joan Larkin, Ada Limon, Cleopatra Mathis, Anne Marie Macari, Richard Michelson, Leslea Newman and Patricia Smith.