Duke Authors Hit The Road With Their Books

Bruce Lawrence reading at the Regulator. Photos by Jon Gardiner/Duke Photography

On a relaxing Monday evening, Bruce Lawrence, a Duke professor emeritus of Islamic studies, stood on a basement door landing at The Regulator bookshop in Durham to address readers arrayed before him in plastic lawn chairs, eager to hear about his new book, “Who Is Allah?”

“It’s a book of key practices by which Allah is revered and remembered, instead of a recitation of controversies,” Lawrence told the gathering. “That’s the most distinctive element of this book.”

An hour later, the audience knew more about Allah and Lawrence had signed about two dozen books. People were chatting, sharing stories and making connections.

Even in a digital age, book tours aren't going way. The basic structure of the event – the author reading from the text, taking questions and signing purchased copies – hasn't changed, but it still connects the author to an audience in ways social media doesn't.

Lawrence said he enjoys "the spontaneity of book readings" -- and he has more stops scheduled at the St. Louis Public Library, the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass, and in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He and his wife, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies professor miriam cooke, will both participate in an “Understanding Islam” program at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tenn., this October.

Other Duke authors are currently joining Lawrence on the book tour circuit. On the same night that Duke played for the national championship, Ruth Wolever used her book reading at The Regulator as an exercise for the audience in mindfulness. Wolever, a clinical health psychologist who directs research at Duke Integrative Medicine, took about 20 minutes out of her talk to lead a group of two dozen in the mindful eating of single Hershey Kisses.

Even as they thought about whether to select dark chocolate or milk chocolate, “they could see right away the power of the mind at work,” Wolever said.

Wolever’s book, “The Mindful Diet: How to Transform Your Relationship with Food for Lasting Weight Loss and Vibrant Health,” has received a boost from a positive review in the American Library Association’s Booklist magazine and exposure in the media.

Bruce Lawrence at the Regulator

The Regulator is a popular venue for Duke authors and for local reading audiences.

The Regulator reading was one of several public events Wolever held for the book, including a panel discussion for the Duke Alumni Association. In addition, a book event for longtime Integrative Medicine supporters at Duke was an enjoyable “homecoming of sorts,” Wolever said.

Curtis Freeman, a Divinity School professor in the midst of a tour for his recent book, “Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists,” says he has appreciated the opportunity at book events to engage in wide discussions about the future of the worldwide Christian church.

The events are also an opportunity to meet new people and reconnect with longtime friends and colleagues, he said.

Since the book came out last September, Freeman says he has been averaging about three appearances a month, including stops at Dallas Baptist University, a colloquium at the University of Dayton, where he once taught, and churches in the same cities. The publisher of Freeman’s book, Baylor University Press, set up an hour-long launch event at the Manhattan office of First Things, an ecumenical journal and educational institute.

“The greatest single thing about getting out with the book has been the opportunity to lift up our program here at Duke,” says Freeman, an ordained Baptist minister and director of the Baptist House of Studies at the Divinity School. Some of his former students told him they spotted the framework of a Duke theological education embedded in the book.

Gina Mahalek, director of publicity at UNC Press, which published Lawrence's booik, says book tours have become a bigger part of promotional plans, in part because bookstores are anxious to schedule and advertise store events. “Stores want to have an event for the person who was in The Wall Street Journal earlier in the month,” she said. “For us, it’s one part of an overall campaign,” along with reviews and radio interviews.

And even if traffic congestion or bad weather dampens turnout, Mahalek says an author can turn a bookstore appearance to their advantage if they have a chance to meet the store’s staff, who will continue to sell a book long after the author has left town.

Mahalek also sees promise in the new trend of virtual book signings, introduced by the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago. The author is in the store and on webcam as they sign each customer’s book.

Likewise, book festivals continue to gain popularity. This weekend, several Duke authors will participate in the inaugural Read Local Book Festival (see accompanying story above).

The Duke authors believe these kinds of events will continue for a simple reason: They provide a few hours where writers and readers can meet and talk about ideas and stories.

“You encounter quirky and unexpected and sometimes brilliant insight into what you’re doing,” Lawrence said. “You can talk and think out loud and people let you go with the flow.”