Standing-room-only book readings unique part of Livingston

Friday, August 24, 2018

Enterprise Photo by Johnathan Hettinger

Author David Quammen speaks to a full house in the upstairs of Elk River Books, Thursday night.


David Quammen started his reading from his new book, “The Tangled Tree,” at Elk River Books Thursday night by asking who in the audience had written a book, and very many people raised their hands.

Then, he asked who had considered writing a book and almost every hand in the room went up.

He joked it was probably easier to ask who hadn’t considered writing a book, and I only saw one hand go up for that question.

That’s one of the things that makes Elk River Books — one of the things that makes Livingston as a whole — really special.

I don’t know if there is another town of 7,000 people in the United States where a book reading about microbial phylogenetics would be a standing-room-only event.

I didn’t know how magical Livingston was when I moved here.

I’m from a town of about 5,500 people, so not that different in size. It’s a wonderful town, but sleepy. My family has been there for over a century, and I went to the same high school as my great grandparents, who lived just blocks down the street from me at home.

Upon moving here, I figured Livingston would be a cute, sleepy mountain town.

In my first weeks of living here, my friend Jake and I marked Aug. 23 on our calendars because Quammen was coming to Elk River Books.

We both immediately fell in love with the book store, and the plethora of local authors. Jake had recently gifted me “Song of the Dodo,” Quammen’s 1996 masterpiece about island biogeography and Jake’s favorite book. Whether traveling the globe in the footsteps of Darwin or eating pizza in Urbana, Illinois, Quammen boil downs fascinating complexities to help readers better understand the world around them.

We bought other books but made a pledge that we would both attend Quammen’s reading from “The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life,” about Carl Woese, who Quammen called “the most important biologist of the 20th century you’ve never heard of.”

Woese was a professor at the University of Illinois, Jake and my hometown university and alma mater. The Institute for Genomic Biology at the university is named after Woese. Jake did research at IGB, and I conducted at least a dozen interviews in the building for stories for the local newspaper. At my high school, the biology teacher gave the class Woese’s home phone number.

This summer, Jake had a seasonal job as a wildlife biologist in Wyoming, and he knew the job would be ending around now, but we thought attending a reading by a favorite author on a professor from our alma mater would be a perfect way to cap our first summer out west.

We didn’t realize how big of a deal the reading would be — every seat was filled before 7 p.m. and at least 20 people were standing in the back of the room and the hall way, ready to listen.

Quammen gave an outline of the book in his typical easy-to-understand manner that makes his books so captivating. Despite being an incredibly difficult to understand topic, Quammen made a room full of people who want to write realize that whatever their fascination is, they can turn it into something bigger, something that people will want to learn about, if you take them on your journey with you.

One of my friends recently visited Livingston for almost a month. He summed it up this way: “Livingston is a neat town, everyone in it is dreaming.”

And readings like Quammen’s make people realize that many of those dreams are possible.