LINCOLN SQUARE — Lincoln Square’s The Book Cellar represented Illinois in a documentary where a filmmaker read 50 books while traveling to 50 states in 50 days, exploring the country’s literary history and the concept of the “Great American Novel.”
Filmmaker and writer Mason Engel’s documentary, “Books Across America,” features 50 famous authors who spoke at local bookstores about why they write and what makes a great novel.
During Engel’s stop in Chicago, he interviewed Veronica Roth — who wrote the Divergent series and frequently depicts Chicago in her novels — at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave.
“It was a ton of fun and an ambitious project,” said Suzy Takacs, who opened The Book Cellar in 2004. “They had a crazy mission to read a book while they were traveling to a bookstore in a new city, and they still had thoughtful questions prepared.”
Roth frequently visits The Book Cellar, hosts events there and signs copies of her new releases to be sold at the store, Takas said.
For the film, Engel spoke with Roth about her ability to “render a place realistically” through writing and her sense of home, he said.
“We talked about how, in doing that for herself, she may have deepened her relationship with Chicago and allowed her readers to deepen their relationship with the city even if many of them haven’t been there,” Engel said.
The documentary’s Illinois portion also features scenes from the American Writers Museum, 180 N. Michigan Ave., where Engel spoke with curators about the history of writing in the United States.
“It was a cool juxtaposition to see Veronica Roth and get her contemporary take on her work, and then to also dive back into the history of American writers,” Engel said.
Engel expects the film to debut at screenings in bookstores sometime in 2024 and launch online in early 2025. People can sign up online to be notified when it’s released.
Engel embarked on his 50-day filmmaking journey to answer the question, “Why are we compelled to read in a world where there are so many easier forms of entertainment?”
Engel was also curious about how writers continued to push forward with their craft even though it can be a thankless job, he said.
“I won’t give it all away, but we realized that reading is, in some way, distinctly American,” Engel said. “There’s something about reading and the nature of how we ingest stories that feels very American. The goal of the film is to help people realize that and appreciate that, and if we’re able to achieve that goal, I think we’ll end up with a lot more readers in this country.”
Engel “never set out to be a documentarian.” He had always wanted to be a writer growing up. But while creating his first documentary, “The Bookstour,” about independent book stores throughout the country, he learned filming could help him find answers to questions he’d always pondered, Engel said.
It was “a tremendous privilege” to ask “some of the most famous and successful American writers” questions about their books as soon as he was finished reading them, Engel said. The experience felt like a “masterclass on writing,” Engel said.
“Engaging with writers’ materials on a very deep, concentrated level over and over again gave me a greater appreciation of books and the people who create them,” Engel said. “It helped me with reading books since I got back from the trip. I no longer take the effort and love that authors put into their books for granted.”
The Book Cellar staff was “thrilled to be included” in sharing the documentary’s message about how books remain an important resource, Takacs said. She said books are an “amazing way to experience the world.”
“I think reading is a great way to share ideas and try on different circumstances or experiences in a safe way,” Takacs said. “You learn so much about other people and places through reading about them. It’s a good way to open doors to the world and learn about how things work in places other than your own.”
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