books about the south 004

Turned Pages: A Quest

By Ken Reynolds
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At first, it sounded like a reasonable request, but only for a few seconds. A good friend, of more than 50 years, asked me to recommend some reading. I am reluctant to recommend books unless I know the person well. He is a good friend, and I agreed to help him. But that was before I gave serious thought to what he wanted. Now I need help.

My friend is a southerner by birth, but his parents moved out west when he was a toddler. He did get occasional visits with his grandparents, but he has no real recollection of life in the South. As he has aged, and the country has become so divided, he has become increasingly curious about the region of his ancestors. Unfortunately, they have all passed on, and he is an only child. He asked me for a reading list to help him along the way.

Well, I read every day, especially in history. But I also know a lot of people who are voracious readers, many of them more avid than I. My requesting friend is one of them. So, I turned to my address book and sent out a plea for help.

I have learned that not everyone on my list received the plea, and except for those who have responded, I have no way to know who did and who did not receive it. So, I am opening the invitation to all my readers, no matter whether we know one another personally. If you want to help me compile the list, email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. I intend to publish it in Smoke Signals. Send the title, author, and a few words about why you make the recommendation.

Now the problem: My friend likely has asked the impossible. I wonder if it is possible to understand a place in which one has never lived by reading. In my opinion, it is not. To emphasize that, for me, to know a place means to understand the tenets and the temperament of its population. Without people, a place is only geography.

Reading may help a person learn a lot and come to have an appreciation for many aspects of the South, but I fall into the group that believes there is no substitute for experience, although reading is the next best alternative. His request has generated lots of questions, including the obvious: Which South and which historical period?

A little info about my friend: His parents were born in the mid-1920s, and he joined them in the mid-1950s. His family was white and middle class in a town of less than 10,000. That made them members of a sub-set of southerners.

Well, I have no way to divine what he expects to learn, but I am working on the premise that he wants to achieve at least some intellectual connection to what molded his parents. My first thought was to start in Virginia and work my way through the South and create a list of prominent writers from each state. But that approach, which he could do for himself, would miss the abundant histories and historiographies that journalists and scholars have contributed. Countless lesser-known writers have added to the literature of and about the region that we know as the South, where myth and fact often are indistinguishable.

I know it is a mission with no definition of success, but so far, it has been an enlightening and rewarding experience. I hope you will help me with this quest to assist my friend.

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