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Western Experience

October 17, 2005

Before you think “What? Another list?” — just listen. It’s an interesting list, and it came about this way:

Douglas County librarian James LaRue discovered during a library mission to Bulgaria that he often found himself playing the role of American ambassador, explaining American history, politics, and sociology, and sometimes defending American values.

The experience renewed his appreciation for the Rotary International Exchange program, in which his local club participates, and the opportunities it creates for improving understanding between cultures.

However, American students are not necessarily prepared for the diplomatic mission that falls in their laps. Larue’s fellow Rotarian Mickey Foutts suggested that a book pack might be developed that would travel with students from The West.

LaRue solicited suggestions from the Colorado library community and was treated to a list of about 150 titles. I’ll be interested to read the final choices, of course, but the list of 150 is fascinating itself.

It’s a challenging assignment to suggest a book that captures the “Western Experience.” Give it some thought and then look over the list: We’ll post the link on the library’s webpage.

Suggestions range from Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” to Howard Zinn’s “A people’s history of the United States.”

>From Ansel Adams’s “Photographs” to Donald Worster’s “A river running west: the life of John Wesley Powell.” Powell’s own book, “Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons,” is also on the list.

While reviewing the list, I spotted a title we were desperately trying to think of recently for a patron: “Giants in the earth” by O.E. Rolvaag. In the usual manner of recall, I could picture the book (although not the color), remember the word “giant” and that the author’s name began with “r” and had a double vowel in it.

The list in total makes a fine reading reference. You’ll recognize the usual suspects: Isabella Bird, Dee Brown, Willa Cather, Samuel Clemens, Ivan Doig. There’s plenty in between. For the modern West, Peter Deckers “Old fences, new neighbors” just about sums it up. Henry Fielder and W.H. Jackson’s “Colorado 1870 – 2000” makes a telling picture book about change.

Jim Harrison, Kent Haruf, and Barbara Kingsolver are on the list. Then there’s David Lavender’s books; “One man’s West” was one of my suggestions. The list has plenty of non-fiction: Barry Lopez, Norman MacLean, John McPhee.

If the wheels are turning in your head, know that Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck are on the list. (Jon Erickson’s “Hank the Cowdog” made it, too.) If you had to pick but one book for this assignment, it would be hard not to pick “The grapes of wrath.”

Mark Spragg’s fine memoir “Where rivers change direction” is on the list. Spragg’s new movie, “An unfinished life,” based on his novel of the same title, is currently showing in Salida.

Frank Waters is there. I loved “People of the valley” and “The man who killed the deer.”

Is the “Western Experience” one of grand open spaces and hardy folk battling nature? A culture of rarefied demographics now lost to suburbia; exploitation and loss; desire and fantasy? Is it people toiling under a big sky; or rugged peaks silently looming over man and his machines?

Or is it the experience of water? Perhaps John Wesley Powell’s 1878 book “Report on the Lands of the Arid Region” should be on the list. But he counseled against the very development we have today.

If there are any gems missing from the list, I’d love to hear about them.


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