By Steve Flairty
My sweet spot for leisurely travel destinations is almost always centered within the state of Kentucky. I don’t feel deprived at all in saying so about what might seem to be such modest expectations; Kentucky is a special place that I can both enjoy and feel a sense of pride as I travel it.
Call me simple in tastes, but it won’t matter a bit to me.
There’s something about the variety of terrains the state affords, all mostly attractive in their own ways. There’s the people, many of whom I’ve written about; Bluegrass trips give me plenty of opportunities to see old friends and to make new ones. I like how Kentucky presents its history in a variety of ways, with both regional and local exhibits on display.
It should be no great surprise, for obvious reasons (this weekly column, for example), that Kentucky is my home and I’m proud to call it that.
That said, I spend a whole lot of professional and leisurely time in my writing room, aka “The Kentucky Room.” For enriching experiences, I regularly take fun, “virtual” trips around the state in this place of repose, mostly as I peruse my bookshelves. Without counting the exact number, I own about 800 Kentucky-related books that are to me, “treasures stored up on earth.”
Before one asks…no, I haven’t read them all, but hope to live long enough to do so. In truth, I am always in some sort of literary process, however, and I read one or more of them at a time.
A virtual trip in my writing room varies in scope on the particular day I take it, but a typical one would go something like this. First, I’ll look over the specific authors that I collect most aggressively. Wendell Berry, for example, is huge on the shelves. I have about 30 of his books. I don’t read a lot of his poetry, but love his non-fiction, with Citizenship Papers, a collection of his essays, my favorite.
I like The Memory of Old Jack best for fiction, but who cannot like just about everything he writes? What a connection I feel! Berry’s Henry County takes me back to my own Grant’s Lick and Claryville. Good folks with simple tastes and good hearts.
Another noted Kentucky author I collect is Thomas Merton, the deceased Trappist monk who gained an international following of readers for his books and spiritual words of wisdom. Of his 70 or so books, I have about half of them.
Without question, The Seven Storey Mountain, his autobiography, is the one I’d read first. Easy, engaging narrative that chronicles his faith journey—a must read and much hope for the good that comes from being a Kentucky transplant. I think of Merton every time I’m around Bardstown, as he was part of the nearby Abbey of Gethsemani.
And what do I particularly like about him? Merton is both Kentucky-earthy and high-minded, and that leaves little room for piety. It’s sad to know that such a special religious voice died from an electrical accident while visiting Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968.
Also along my Kentucky bookshelf journey stands a nice selection of books authored by Robert Penn Warren, born in Guthrie, Kentucky, (near the Tennessee border) and America’s first national Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. He won three Pulitzer Prizes: two for his poetry and one for his iconic novel, All the King’s Men.
RPW was an American star who happened to be born and raised in Kentucky. His place in history belies the notion, held by more than a few around the country, that the state is overrun by a large class of illiterates and is pretty much only noted for a winning basketball tradition and little else.
Jesse Stuart’s The Thread that Runs So True is a special book which inspires because I was once a fledgling teacher like Stuart’s protagonist (obviously Stuart) with many daily challenges. There are a couple of dozen different Stuart offerings in The Kentucky Room, waiting to be held, then read.
I was also idealistic as a teacher, but didn’t get into a fist fight with a student as happened in his book. Thread, as well as most of Stuart’s books, bring out the “inner rural” nature that surrounded my youth. And yep, ol’ Jess liked to read, teach, speak, write and get his hands dirty in the garden. I do, too…only wish I could do all those things with the aplomb that he did.
I sure miss having David Dick around to hear of his appreciation of those he called “quiet Kentuckians,” the kinds of people who humbly go about their lives with a simple elegance and decency, though not without flaws. David always acknowledged their dignity in his writings, and I am blessed today with the words of knowledge and encouragement he offered me personally.
Fortunately, I have in my possession most of his books, and I remember David writing like he talked—always with a story and often a grin. The View from Plum Lick is what hooked me, and my favorite story dealt with a dog that licked the meat cutter in a rural general store, a place that was known for serving wonderful bologna sandwiches.
One of the first major magazine profiles I published was one on Carlisle’s Barbara Kingsolver, and a nice sampling of her books adorn The Kentucky Room. She is a tremendous writer, with The Bean Trees my pick to start your Kingsolver reading spree…and remember that her classic, The Poisonwood Bible, is powerful and requires energy.
It is also quite worth the effort. Her books generally speak of social justice issues, but can also be read for enjoyment and to learn what good writing looks like. Not an easy interview to get, she accepted my request in the early 2000s (returned via snail mail her answers to my questions) because the subject regarded Kentucky’s education system.
This is only a start to my virtual tour taken among the shelves inside The Kentucky Room. Next week, will continue the journey and tell you about some books and authors you may not know, but I hope to give you a reason to learn more.
Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)