From the 1920s to the Present, Here Are Some of the Best Books on Texas

Since at least the 1920s, Texans have made literary lists of books on Texas.

The first informal catalog of Texan books required to become popular was born in 1929 as a handout reading guide for the course “Life and Literature of the Southwest” by J. Frank Dobie at the University of Texas.

This would eventually become the basis for almost all subsequent lists published in the popular press, even for those critics who reject all or part of Dobie’s canon.

1943: The University of Texas Press publishes J. Frank Dobie’s “Guide to Southwestern Life and Literature”.

The Old Man of Texas Letters, who started out as a folklorist and ended up primarily as a columnist in a newspaper with a statewide audience, was not the first Texan to compile a comprehensive list of our state’s best reads, but most current discussions begin with this accounting publication.

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It divides the chapters by subjects and themes such as “Indian Culture”, “Pioneer Women”, “Men of the Mountain” and “Pony Express”. On the literary side, we do a lot of poetry, theater, folk songs and stories. Dobie provides sharp notes on most of his choices.

By this time, the vision of Texas and the Southwest had started to coalesce around the idea of ​​robust individualism. Dobie was a powerful contributor to this concept, but, even in 1943, he was open-minded about how it manifested itself. Very early on he paid special attention, for example, to Hispanic and Black folklorists and folklore.

1952: Southern Methodist University Press publishes J. Frank Dobie’s “Guide to Southwestern Life and Literature: Revised and Expanded in Both Knowledge and Wisdom”.

Dobie’s widely revised and expanded version of his popular roster – which includes hundreds of titles – reveals how his mind has changed dramatically, as described in Steven L. Smith’s beautiful biography, “J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind” . It still focuses on the land and its indigenous life, especially the border backgrounds, but it links southwestern writing to world literature and rejects exclusive, self-taught provincialism. He is looking for broader themes.

A free ebook version of this edition is available at

In 1998, the Texas Book Festival honored AC Greene with Americo Paredes.  Laura Bush, first lady of Texas at the time, helped Greene, author, journalist, critic and bookseller, raise her price.  Greene wrote influential lists of the best Texas books in 1981 and 1998.

Greene vs. McMurtry et al

nineteen eighty one : Texas Monthly magazine publishes AC Greene’s essay, “Texas’ 50 Best Books.”

The late journalist, bookseller and author of over 20 books stepped on literature’s toes with this widely circulated list, as he praised his favorite books. By no means definitive, it still contains a few surprises and delicacies in the best tradition of Texas Monthly.

I did not remember or give an example of this article, but it would be appropriate to read now: “Journal of the Secession Convention of Texas”, 1861, edited from the original by Ernest W. Winkler, librarian of ‘State.

“It is the most tragic document in Texas history – and the most dramatic,” notes Green. “Officially and meticulously – 469 pages, none of which was wasted – it details the enveloping tornado that plunged even the most sane Texans into the catastrophe history calls ‘the cause of the South.’

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nineteen eighty one: Texas Observer publishes Larry McMurtry’s essay, “Ever a Bridegroom: Reflections on the Failure of Texas Literature.” “

McMurtry, who passed away earlier this year, was pretty sure he couldn’t name 50 Texas ledgers. He particularly poked fun at the emphasis placed on tales of the Old West by the “Holy Oldtimers”, and then he wrote perhaps the greatest western of all, “Lonesome Dove”.

Almost 40 years later, Joe Holley of the Houston Chronicle met McMurtry at a book signing in San Antonio.

“But Larry,” said Holley, “I thought you said Texan writers should stop writing about the Old West.”

He looked up from the book he was signing. “I didn’t say they should stop writing about the Old West,” he said. “I said they should stop writing badly about the Old West.”

Point well taken.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry poses in his Archer City bookstore.  McMurtry wrote the scathing essay, "Always a Bridesmaid: Reflections on the Failure of Texan Literature."

1998: University of North Texas Press publishes AC Greene’s hardcover book, “The 50+ Best Books on Texas”.

We had seen this rock fight before.

Greene maintains that he has remained friends with writers, academics and critics, including McMurtry, who challenged his first attempt in 1981.

I didn’t pay much attention to it in 1998, but I was particularly disappointed that he dropped out of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” because he wasn’t Texan enough, even though. ‘he is often collected together with “June Wine” and other short sets of pieces in his native state.

I’ll discuss Greene’s revised list in a bit more detail later in this column.

March 10, 2019: American-Statesman publishes “The 53 Best Books on Texas”, by former colleague Dave Thomas and me.

For Texas Independence Month, Thomas and I dug through this old Texas literary hornet’s nest. We suffered a few minor bites, especially since we deliberately left out James Michener’s novel “Texas”.

I wrote a follow-up column on June 24, 2019 on Reader Favorites We Had Ignored. Some, like “Evolution of a State” by Noah Smithwick, which I have since read and greatly appreciated.

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October 24, 2019: Texas Highways publishes “Texas Books for 100 Ages”, by S. Kirk Walsh and the magazine staff.

This long and excellent list earns extra points for its new structure which marks books for Texan readers at every life age from 1 to 100. Now he’s a hard-working editor.

For the imaginary age of 100, TH chose Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Loneliness”, not only for its numerical significance, but also because the Nobel Prize-winning author’s articles can be found at the Ransom Center in the University of Texas at Austin.

So a little Texan.

May 1, 2020: The American statesman publishes my breezy column, “On Second Thought, Make that 60 Essential Books About Our State.”

At this point, I was just having fun. I added some great books that had come out in the intervening months, such as “Big Wonderful Thing” by Stephen Harrigan and “The Which Way Tree” by Elizabeth Crook.

May 2, 2020: The Houston Chronicle publishes “The 30 Most Essential Books on Texas” by Andrew Dansby.

At that time, readers in Texas were watching a lot of the same titles. And not just excerpts from the canons of Dobie and Greene, which were, after all, heavy on Texana, but a good number of books written by and about Texan communities that did not correspond to what the ancients thought was the literature of the world. ‘State.

Sergio Troncoso is more recently the author of

These nine lists don’t come close to listing all the published lists of the best books in Texas, but I would be remiss if I did not include two other titles that have recently helped me find more candidates: “Hecho en Tejas: by Dagoberto Gilb: An Anthology of Texas Mexican Literature ”, and the very recent“ Nepantla Familias: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature on Families Between Worlds ”by Sergio Troncoso.

Expect an interview with Troncoso in this space in the near future.

There is another place to look for lists of Texas books, especially those that focus on Hispanic, Black, Native American, and other communities that are not always well represented in the media – the bibliographies printed on the backs of many of the volumes. ‘stories. Also, think about these best book lists, especially if they’re well annotated.

Frank de la Teja, a former official state historian of Texas and retired as a professor at Texas State University and head of the Texas State Historical Association, once told me that the first thing he did when opening a new book is to look to the bibliography. .

Especially when it comes to Hispanic American history, hers are invaluable.

What do we do with these lists from Texas?

Read the. Think about them. Act on them.

I recently purchased two volumes of Texas Book Lists that cater to two different readership.

John H. Jenkins’ Basic Texas Books (revised 1988) attempts to define what any decent research library should collect in order to give a history student in Texas a sense of what really happened. Jenkins does not select the “best books,” meaning the most enjoyable to read, but rather key historical documents, including memoirs, diaries, and official documents.

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To balance that out, I bought a copy of “The 50+ Best Books on Texas” by Greene for the first time. While I had read with relish its original 1981 Texas Monthly list several times – the magazine’s digital archives are easy to use – I had never owned a copy of its hardcover 1998 follow-up.

Let me start by saying that both bibliographers approach their subjects with similar temperaments. These are not picking fights or crushing axes. They admit their biases and encourage further exploratory reading. They are, thank goodness, also witty writers, easy to read, and quick to enjoy. I’m pretty happy with the two books and they’ll sit side by side on my Texana shelves.

Although it relies too much on Old West themes, I would recommend Greene’s for beginners. Entries are short and conversational.

Now all of the listings are out of date on the day they are published, but this one is worth taking down every now and then to remember her first romance with Texans’ words. And to see what people were reading decades ago.

“Basic Texas Books”, on the other hand, is aimed at scholars, serious enthusiasts and, I suppose, sellers of antique books.

Which means I love him. There is no way in the world that I can put together all of its 224 entries, let alone the many published bibliographies listed in its appendix.

But it’s good to know he’s there.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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