Every bibliophile knows the experience of coming to the end of a great book and wishing it would sprout new pages.

While that particular problem can't ever be solved, organizers of this year's Montana Festival of the Book have at least figured out a way to sprout additional chapters to their own storied activities.

When the festival opens next Thursday, visitors will find not only a piled plate of panel discussions and readings, but also a separate and parallel menu of book-related activities to choose from, courtesy of the Western Literature Association.

This year, for the first time, the WLA will hold its annual conference in Missoula. Not only that, but the conference will be opened to the public and run concurrent with the Montana Festival of the Book.

The effective result, for book-lovers, is a double-sized festival this year, with activities spread from Wednesday through Saturday at numerous venues around downtown Missoula.

Some of those events will read like a familiar old book: The festival's hugely popular poetry slam, now in its fourth year, returns on Friday night, Oct. 7, at the Top Hat; the annual Altered Book Workshop returns to the Missoula Public Library that same day; and, of course, the festival wraps up with a gala reading at the Wilma Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 8, this year featuring Bonnie Jo Campbell, Mary Clearman Blew and Montana Poet Laureate Sheryl Noethe.

But most of this year's festival will feel like a visit to the "New Releases" shelf.

Dozens of authors - from Dan Aadland to Maya Jewell Zeller - will read from and discuss books published in the past year. In between those readings, a number of workshops, presentations and discussions will cover everything from the barns of Montana to book collecting to steampunk art.

Festival director Kim Anderson said that this year's events follow a well-established yet open-ended formula.

"We've chosen from the very beginning of the festival not to give any particular year an imposed theme or slant, because each year the festival is shaped by the books that are out there rather than some kind of ideas that we generate here," said Anderson. "We talk very seriously and in depth about literature and film and art and its relationship to a landscape and our cultural ways, but we also want to make it as fun and accessible as possible."

That fun extends to the far reaches of literary connections this year.

In one of the first events of this year's festival, kids of all ages are invited to the Missoula Public Library on Thursday, Oct. 6, to create a scene from a book using Legos. The following day, at 2 p.m., a panel discussion of the Western films of Joel and Ethan Coen will include screenings of two of their most acclaimed films, "Blood Simple" and "Fargo," at the Wilma Theatre. And on Saturday, Oct. 8, anyone and everyone is invited to participate in "Ed Lahey Karaoke," an open-mic reading of the poetry of the late Montana writer, at the Brooks and Brown Bar in the Holiday Inn Parkside.

All of that doesn't even take into consideration the events of the WLA conference. Made up largely of professors and scholars, the WLA is a non-profit association based at Utah State University that promotes the study of literature and cultures of the American West.

The topics under discussion at the WLA conference take a more heady approach to the writings of the region, with panel titles such as "Hybridity, Resistance and Subversion in Native America," "Critical Regionalisms," and "Bodies, Texts, and Bodies of Texts: Rethinking Connections."

But the discussions would nevertheless appeal to - and benefit from - a broader public than the conference's attending academics, said Nancy Cook, a UM professor of English who is currently serving as the WLA's president.

"Doing the conference this way gives these scholars a chance to think about how important the North American West is with an audience of people who are living that life and maybe don't think about it the same way as they do," said Cook. "Missoula is a well-educated audience in these areas that many of these scholars are addressing, so it should make the conversation part of these panels pretty lively."

Moreover, Cook said that the concurrence of the two events will bring Western literature scholars closer to the subjects of their study.

"It really seemed like a great opportunity for our scholars and teachers to hear from and meet writers whom they already teach and be introduced to some new writers," said Cook. "It's also great for the writers because they can multiply their audience among teachers.

"It really seemed like a win-win all around."

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358, jnickell@missoulian.com or on NickellBag.com.


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