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Bringing stories to life

How one bookseller is embracing technology to create a new generation of locally engaged readers.

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Nick Jarvis

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Land Arnold has always been able to get lost in a book. The owner of Letters bookstore in Durham, North Carolina, remembers that he was eager to devour as many works of literature as possible. But it wasn’t just his favorite author’s stories that Arnold fell in love with, he was also taken by the lives his favorite authors lived.

Arnold remembers discovering that passion during a school field trip growing up in Atlanta. His elementary class went to see Margaret Mitchell’s home where a tour guide led them around the property and explained where seminal moments in the Gone With the Wind author’s life occurred — including her untimely death by the hands of a speeding driver. “I remember that kind of stuck with me,” Arnold says. “This person who had written this epic novel and lived here and died here. It was the sort of human detail that never left me.”

He credits that moment as the inspiration for a project that will bring authors to life for local communities around the world. Arnold is using his newly won ASUS VivoBook S with the Intel Core i7 processor to create a mappable database of local authors in order to build a tech-enabled bridge between readers and writers. “I love the idea of authors being human and being of and from a place so beyond their work,” Arnold says. “And using technology to be able to spread those stories is so exciting to me.”

Arnold’s database will focus on sharing the stories of local authors whose fame hasn’t gone beyond their hometown. He points to the example of civil rights activist and author Pauli Murray, a Durham legend whose influence has never spread as far as her talents merited. Arnold envisions his map-enabled database will give people the chance to encounter the literary history of places like Durham whether they’re in town for a visit or looking at the digital map from hundreds of miles away. “That kind of jump-started it for me. Murray has such acclaim in certain circles, but I wanted to see how we could elevate her profile in the place that she’s from,” Arnold says.

An app integrated with a map made for the perfect medium. “Having something on a phone or a PC that can be easily accessed so people know about where they are — it just makes stories kind of come alive again.” He points to a recent trip down to Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s sprawling estate in Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner was famously a world builder, creating Yoknapatawpha County from whole cloth and placing his stories inside it. Those tasked with maintaining Faulkner’s legacy at Rowan Oak kept everything as it was from decades past, giving the whole property a live electricity. “It just added such a layer to it, from gun shells on his bookshelf to his scrawled phone numbers in his kitchen,” Arnold says. “There was even a room where he was scrawling a screenplay onto the wall and they kept it that way.” Arnold’s database is a way to create that feeling he had at Rowan Oak for authors who may not have the star power of a Faulkner. He wants his platform to highlight underrepresented authors and give their stories to the communities that empowered them.

Arnold grasps the irony of an old-school bookseller encouraging people to use their phones and computers more. But he doesn’t see technology as incompatible with encouraging reading or fostering a bond with a favorite author. Instead, he sees tech as a discovery engine guiding people to new ideas and new people. “Technology is the way that people’s love of reading spreads to other people,” Arnold says. “To be able to use technology to harness that and then have them off the technology to actually read the physical book is kind of my ideal.”

He also sees it as a way for local communities to unearth literary traditions that may have been lost to history: former immigrant enclaves that are now home to towering glass and steel apartment buildings, Native American communities with storytelling legacies that go back centuries, literary landmarks long forgotten. Arnold wants this database to serve as a tech repository to inspire new generations of readers to realize their written history is all around them. “A lot of communities don’t venerate their authors and their literary history,” he says. “This database is a place for people to go and expand our dialogue about the local literary culture.”

Eventually, as the database grows, Arnold sees it becoming a place where collaboration thrives. He wants it to be a resource for researchers and literature lovers alike. “I want it to become this nationwide and then worldwide source where everyone can use it,” Arnold says. “For people who are doing research or for people who are just curious about their history.”

It’s also, he says, a way for students to embrace literature in a way they understand. Arnold beams when asked about the potential impact the database could have on pupils who may not know that their local literary history surrounds them. “Anything that can you get even mentally out of the classroom and into your community to kind of see something come alive is important,” he says. “To have a place can turn something flat on a page into a living thing.”