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Kentucky by Heart: Cataloging Kentucky book collection offers nostalgic walk down memory lane

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

I‘m currently cataloging my sizeable Kentucky book collection, which stretches around me on the shelves in my study, where I do most of my writing. There are some non-Kentucky books, too, but many less, and I’m estimating that the number of books I own written by Kentucky authors or about the state will show at least a thousand.

Though the process gets laborious at times, it has generally been an exhilarating one. That’s because my collecting started nearly 20 years ago when I started doing published writing; going through the books brings back a whole slew of memories related to my “coming of age” process in the literary realm.

Steve’s bookshelf (Photo provided)

The several Silas House books I have jumped out quickly. A profile I did of him in 2001 for Kentucky Monthly was, at least for me, memorable. He is a widely known novelist now, but at that time he had just published his first book of fiction, the acclaimed Clay’s Quilt. Ironically, Silas was a postman when he published the novel, and a story in USA Today about a mailman writing an important book helped propel him. For the interview, I met him after work at a Frisch’s Restaurant in London, not far from his home in the tiny town of Lily. I later was a student in Silas’s fiction class at the Carnegie Center in Lexington. I’ll never forget his continual words of critique for me: “Steve, you’re too journalistic in your writing.” He was right, and I’ve stayed (rightfully, in truth) pretty much a non-fiction writer, in most respects being a reporter rather than one who creates.

I really like some of the older books in the collection. I read A Literary History of Kentucky, by William Ward, several years ago. The author excited me about some of the state’s writers going back about a hundred years or more. I have a good number of their books. I have some of the works of James Lane Allen, John Fox, Jr., Irwin Cobb, Lucy Furman, and Alice Hegan Rice. There are modern versions of their stories, but the ones that came out during their lifetimes—now sometimes musty with age–give me a special feeling of connection. For example, we will all do well to carry around a little optimism as we find in Rice’s Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch…a sweet portrayal of grace under difficult circumstances. Yep, those early Kentucky artists provide a timeless bit of inspiration as I sit at my desk writing daily.

My larger, heavier books (tomes, if you will) sit on my shelves near the floor and serve as important references for my Kentucky by Heart articles. There are individual encyclopedias covering Kentucky, northern Kentucky, Louisville, African Americans in Kentucky, and one covering Appalachia. Items presented in each book often provide the impetus for new stories, often nuggets in history that are not familiar to many. I also use the references for fact verification.

I specifically collect the works of Wendell Berry, Jesse Stuart, Robert Penn Warren, and Thomas Merton. I’m hoping that some of the dust around their books lands on me and it is potent pixie dust. May I aspire a little?

I have several copies of John Egerton’s Generations: An American Family. As I have mentioned previously, it is my all-time favorite non-fiction book about Kentucky. John recently was added to the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, and I believe it is well-deserved recognition. He was raised in Cadiz and became a nationally recognized writer of Southern history and culture, including his emphasis on civil rights and food. And as I’ve previously reported in this column, my interview with John some fifteen years at his home for a magazine article is one of the highlights of my career, and I’m reminded of it every time I glance at his works on my shelves.

William Townsend’s Lincoln and the Bluegrass (Photo provided)

Another book I ran across, nearly forgotten, is The Story of Helm Place and the People Who Have Called It Home, by Mary Genevieve Townsend Murphy. She was the daughter of William H. Townsend, a noted authority on Abraham Lincoln, and Mary lived most of her life in the home. As a fourth-grade teacher, I once took my students on a field trip to the historic site on Bowman’s Mill Road in Fayette County. Mary was the tour guide and a treasure of stories. Afterward, she signed and inscribed her book to me, and I’m happy to also possess a few of her father’s books, including Lincoln and the Bluegrass. It was certainly an amazing experience for the kids, too.

And speaking of classroom experiences, I have several of Frank X. Walker’s poetry books. Frank was the first Black Kentucky Poet Laureate (2013-2014). I wrote an article about him for Kentucky Monthly, and he’s a true wordsmith and artist. I had him speak to one of my fourth-grade classes several years back and he is gifted in that, also. Without the writing connection, I doubt if I’d ever had the chance to be around him so up close.

I have most of David Dick’s books which thematically have to do with our “quiet Kentuckians,” as he calls them. I received most of them from he and wife Lalie while interviewing the two at their historic Plum Lick home in Bourbon County. David could make slices of everyday folks’ lives read like royal and riveting fiction, though true. Joe Creason, of the same cloth but with more humor thrown in, also inspires me so much that I keep extra copies of his books. Those writers knew the ways and language of Kentucky, especially rural ones.

The Exiles (later changed to “Exile) was a rock group from Richmond that often played at Wallace’s Bookstore near the EKU campus or other nearby places when I was a freshman at EKU in the early 1970s. Their memoir, 50 Years of Exile, sits on a shelf to my left. I reviewed the book for a magazine, and what struck me was the amazing changes, some successful, some not, that the group had undergone since I watched them as a baby-faced 18-year-old. Where has the time gone? Will their work last over the long haul? And over the long haul, what tweaks and/or different directions will my writing take?

Pausing while pulling books off my shelves to inventory has become quite a reflective project. I’ve only skimmed the surface of the stories I could tell, and that alone is a good reason to both finish the inventory, then add more books to keep the prose going. Might it be a good time to get together take a shelfie with your books?

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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