By Steve Flairty
My love of reading Kentucky-related books, particularly non-fiction, started as a child. Inspired by my father’s interest in showing our small family the people and places of the state, I devoured the biographies in the tiny Grant’s Lick Elementary School library dealing with the Commonwealth.
I read books about Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay, Mary Todd Lincoln and others, and when dear Mrs. Helen Gosney became my seventh grade teacher, I couldn’t wait for Mondays to come. Why? That’s when she brought her already-read copy of the Sunday Courier-Journal, the Louisville newspaper that was chock full of University of Kentucky basketball and football news.
Not only that, the non-sports information was pretty cool for this seventh grader back in the 1960s who loved to read and wasn’t distracted by items such as smart phones and the Internet. And, it tickled Mrs. Gosney that I wanted to read the newspaper she brought and discussed news and features with her.
In the C-J, I read and learned to love columnist Joe Creason, whose Joe Creason’s Kentucky was a long-time popular feature in the newspaper.
Creason’s aim, according to the book he published of the same name, was to provide “space for low-pressure, humorous, ironic, real-life stories about (Kentucky) people…” He traveled the state gathering a wealth of the stories, and he wrote an easy-to-read, but on a powerful level that inspired at times and at other times made the reader laugh out loud. Absorbing Creason’s words spurred me to read further about people and places in Kentucky.
Over the past decade, I’ve read hundreds of non-fiction books about Kentucky or by Kentucky authors. Many were good to excellent, and a share weren’t so good, but that is to be expected.
Recently, I figured it would be fun to come up with a personal top ten list of my favorites and to encourage the reader to analyze the admittedly arbitrary list. Though I mentioned these in a previous column, this time I’ve added some notes.
So here goes. Let’s start at No. 10 and work toward No. 1. Actually, there are 12, as I made numbers 8 and 2 as showing two because of close connections to each. I expect lots of good-natured dissent on my choices, and that is great.
10-Wild Ride: The Rise and Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc., America’s Premier Racing Dynasty, by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach. Did you ever wonder how the iconic Calumet Farm got its name? That question is answered quickly in this intriguing book, but there’s a whole lot more, including some pretty dicey information regarding the horsey set around the Bluegrass.
9-A Literary History of Kentucky, by William Ward. A great reference of significant writers of the state’s past. Its weakness is that a wonderful generation of new writers is not covered, as it was published in 1988. The book has whet my appetite for old book collecting.
8-The Kentucky Encyclopedia, with John Kleber, editor-in-chief/The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, edited by Smith, McDaniel, and Hardin. Though the KE was published in 1992 (a dream of Kentucky historian icon Thomas D. Clark) and could use an update, it, like the KAAE, are both examples of a collaborative research effort covering many people and places of Kentucky—both historically and in contemporary times. Both are rich resources for seeing the essence of the state.
7-Citizenship Papers, by Wendell Berry. Whichever you like best of Berry’s literary triad–fiction, poetry, or his essays, as this is–this work is one of the best in straightforwardly articulating his views of agrarianism versus the industrial/corporate society. One might argue that his books might rightly be mentioned several times on this list. It would be a credible argument.
6-The Bluegrass Conspiracy: An Inside Story of Power, Greed, Drugs & Murder, by Sally Denton. Written like a fast-paced murder mystery, the book has remained popular since it hit the scene in 1990. It names names and tells of some genuine Kentucky bad guys working collaboratively to do bad things.
5-Trapped: The Story of Floyd Collins, by Robert Murray and Roger Brucker. This riveting offering, called “a tense adventure and a brilliant historical recreation of the past,” chronicles the events surrounding Floyd Collins being trapped in western Kentucky’s Sand Cave in 1925, an international news event. Even though I knew the ending, I couldn’t put the book down.
4-The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton. This autobiography of a Trappist monk at Nelson County’s Abbey of Gethsemani, Thomas Merton, is a brilliant book that has remained a popular classic well beyond the boundaries of Kentucky for well over a half century. He has been called “the most influential Catholic author of the 20th Century.” Kentuckians need to begin to realize that assertion, too.
3-Night Comes to the Cumberlands, by Harry Caudill. The Whitesburg lawyer, author, and environmental activist, with Night, helped spur America’s “War on Poverty” government aid program initiated in the Johnson administration in the 1960s. Check out Jerry Deaton’s recently released documentary, “Harry Caudill: A Man of Courage,” which gives a wide-ranging look at his influence in Appalachian Kentucky. Harry Caudill’s words remain provocative and continue to demand a verdict today.
2-Joe Creason’s Kentucky/Crossroads and Coffee Trees, by Joe Creason. Though sometimes downright corny in his humorous anecdotes, he set the table for me early in my interest in the state’s common citizenry. I also am a big fan of David Dick (now deceased) and another Courier-Journal columnist, Byron Crawford, who could raise a story of everyday people to royalty.
1-Generations: An American Family, by John Egerton. Of this profile of eastern Kentuckians patriarch Burnam and matriarch Addie Ledford, The Washington Post said: “In Egerton’s hands, their story becomes a small American epic.” This is all the more my favorite Kentucky non-fiction book because I had the opportunity to interview this master historian/writer at his home in Nashville for Kentucky Monthly. Egerton chose a family from Kentucky to present a panoramic view of generational connections, and he was proud that the Burnams, from his native state, proved ideal. Put Generations on your bucket list, and do it soon.
In fact, put all these books on your reading bucket list.
Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of 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 KyForward and 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)