101 Essential Texas Books

By W. F. Strong

If I have an addiction, it’s definitely books. I read about two books a week and order two more I’m unlikely to ever get to. But I like them on the shelf as backup the way survivalists hoard food supplies. Admittedly, I’m often short of shelves. When you have more books than shelves, you know you’re overdoing it.

I’m the book equivalent of the cat lady. I take in more books than I should. I recently took a pickup load of recyclable metals to a solid waste depot. As I paid the man I noticed he had 20 books on a little shelf outside his office. I said, “Well, you have plenty to read there when things are slow.” He said, “No, I’m not much of a reader but I can’t stand seeing good books go to the dump so I save ’em. These are rescue books for anyone who wants them.” I rescued 5 of the rescue books. To show the extent of my addiction, I also have a massive stash in the cloud, just in case I need a book when traveling or when stuck at the dentist’s office.

Doing some math I figured that if I live to my allotted average age, I figure I have only 2,000 books left to read in my life. And probably only 1500 because I’ll re-read 500 of my favorites, leaving 1500 new books over the next 20 years – out of billions in the world. A sad fraction. So, I must choose well. To borrow from the old dicho, “Life is too short to read bad books.”

So how does one choose well? First, you have recommendations from friends whose taste you trust. As I am into Texana books, I rely also on sites like Texas Booklover on Facebook for suggestions worth my time. But my favorite of all are books about books. Larry McMurtry has an exquisite book called simply Books. It’s truly spellbinding. A similar sort of work that I want to recommend to you today is 101 Essential Texas Books by Glenn Dromgoole and Carlton Stowers, both authors and experts on Texas literature.

Each book in the 101 is tightly summarized. You’ll find your favorites here for sure: All the Pretty Horses, The Time it Never Rained, Lone Star by Fehrenbach, Michener’s Texas, Friday Night Lights, and Lonesome Dove. But you will also find numerous gems you’ve perhaps never come across.

I like that the collection is in genres. You have first-rate works in history, literature – in this case books about books and writing – fiction, people, place, law and order, sports, food and drink, and books for young readers.

Here’s a few I think are lesser known standouts:

Texas Post Office Murals by Philip Parisi is a full color book of 115 photographs of depression era murals painted in Texas Post Offices across the state. They were painted by famous artists like Tom Lea, Xavier Gonzalez, and Jerry Bywaters and were meant to lift the spirits of people going through hard times.

A History of Texas Music by Gary Hartman. Not limited to Country-Western, Hartman covers “German, Czech, Tejano, Cajun, rock and roll, and rhythm and blues.”

100,000 Hearts: A Surgeon’s Memoir by Denton Cooley. It’s an autobiography by one of the world’s best heart surgeons of all time. And I’m not just saying that because one of those 100,000 hearts still beating is mine.

Under the category of “place” you have Goodbye to a River by John Graves, and A.C. Greene’s A Personal Country, as one would expect. The lesser known standout for me is Great Lonely Places of the Texas Plains by the Texas Poet Walt McDonald and Texas’ genius photographer Wyman Meinzer. It is a stunning book wherein poems illuminate photographs and photographs animate poems.

Rainwater by Sandra Brown. Sandra Brown is best known for her bestsellers in romance and suspense so this work is a departure for her. Set in a small Texas town during the depression, it has been compared to The Grapes of Wrath because it is the story of a tough woman barely surviving while running a boarding house in the dust bowl.

That’s a quick preview. Check out the 101 Essential Texas Books and you’ll be sure to find many you’ll cherish having on your shelves, or if you’re like me, stacked on your desk or on top of the dining room table, piano, refrigerator, night table, etc.

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Laura Rice