“Busman’s Holiday” seems like a more seemly title for this column than what I originally planned to use to describe how I’ve been spending my winter vacation: “an orgy of reading.” But that’s really what I’ve been indulging in and am at present very happily drunk on words. Having earned a BS in literature years ago, I tend not to read serious stuff any longer (the second class in which we had to study Sartre’s Nausea cured me of so-called serious literature), and now I mostly read mysteries for fun…but that changed a bit last year because of a library conference.
Driving to the 2012 Association of Research Libraries (ARL) Assessment Conference in Charlottesville, VA, I got excited as I passed a number of Civil War battlefields on my way there: Manassas, Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, etc. Like so many others, I’m fascinated by that conflict (The Civil War documentary made me into a Ken Burns and Shelby Foote groupie), so on the return trip I took a detour and went to the Gettysburg National Military Park.
After that, I decided I wanted to read more about the war, and I’ve been doing that off and on over the past year. Last Christmas, I received the three volumes of Shelby Foote’s Civil War: A Narrative on audio disc and listened to it during my daily 100-mile commute (I did temper all that nonfiction with Michael Shaara’s brilliant The Killer Angels, I admit). Needing a major fix for the long holiday this year, I stocked up, checking out some materials from Widener’s collections and requesting others on that indispensable Amazon feature, my wish list.
Here’s a partial record of what I’ve been joyfully consuming over the past ten days:
- Grant and Twain: The Story of an American Friendship by Mark Perry (from this I learned the truth about just who wrote Ulysses S. Grant’s Memoirs and about the genteel battle between Mark Twain and others to publish them; by the way, when I checked out a copy of the Memoirs from Widener a few years ago, I found a bookplate in the front identifying it as from the personal collection of Sarah Orne Jewett—not surprising, since the book was part of so many personal libraries as a result of Twain’s canny marketing system, but I was delighted to be holding her copy in my hands).
- Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz—if you have not yet read this, boy! do you have a treat in store. Admittedly, I’m interested in the Civil War, but Horwitz’s writing will captivate you even if you’ve never given the war a second thought. And you’ll get to read about Robert Lee Hodge’s super-hard-core brand of Civil War “reenacting” (this latter is too farb, a term to describe Hodge’s approach to living history and wargasms—you’ll need to read the book to get a good interpretation).
- Michael Kilian’s Harrison Raines Civil War mysteries: Murder at Manassas, A Killing at Ball’s Bluff, The Ironclad Alibi, The Shiloh Sisters, A Grave at Glorieta, and Antietam Assassins (Kilian died young and unfortunately never got farther in the series than Antietam, but these are great combinations of mystery and history).
- All for the Union: The Civil War Diary & Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes, edited by Robert Hunt Rhodes. Ken Burns used numerous excerpts from Rhodes’s diary and letters in his epic film; I was interested to learn in the course of reading this that the editor—Rhodes’s great-grandson—was a librarian at Landmark College in Vermont, a college for students with dyslexia, ADD, and other learning disabilities (Landmark College’s Early Years).
- Civil Blood: A Civil War Mystery by Ann McMillan. I’m working my way steadily through McMillan’s Civil War mysteries; her characters are particularly interesting but so is the history she includes.
- South of Shiloh by Chuck Logan, a murder mystery surrounded by present-day Civil War reenacting,
And yet to come:
- Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War by Charles Bracelen Flood. From what I’ve been reading, Sherman was not despised by Southerners in the 19th century; anti-Sherman sentiment apparently surfaced later, among those who never had encountered him, which is something I want to research further.
- Company Aytch by Samuel R. Watkins, another memoir Ken Burns used extensively in The Civil War; reviews call Watkins “Twain-like” so I’m looking forward to an engaging read.
- Listening to Mark Twain’s Autobiography, Volumes 1 and 2, on audio CD (got these for Christmas this year and can hardly wait to hear them. By the way, do take a look at the Mark Twain Project Online if you’re interested in Twain; the site contains both volumes of the Autobiography, others of his books, and an index to over 2,400 letters (with text and facsimiles of some).
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