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December 2009

Required Reading

The essential Adirondack library

Punch “Adirondack Mountains” into Amazon.com and you’ll get more hits than you can wade through in a day. And that doesn’t account for the thousands of essays, verses, journal entries or logbook ramblings that never find their way into print. There’s something about these mountains that inspires folks to pick up a pen—even those who probably shouldn’t. But among the clumsy at­tempts at capturing the essence of this wilderness there are brilliant moments of clarity, and beyond the poetry is a meaty history of shifting rock and clashing ideas that could—and does—fill volumes.

With such a wealth it’s nearly impossible to pare down to the core: the two dozen or so spines that should line any true Adirondack library. So we turned to local ex­perts—bookworms, historians, authors—to narrow the field.

Pulling in the most votes in our informal poll is The Adi­rondack Reader (third edition, 2009) edited by Paul Jamieson and guidebook guru Neal Burdick. Covering 400 years, including work by Verplanck Colvin, Noah John Rondeau and Christine Jerome, the Reader is the ultimate collection of regional writing. It’s “an Adirondack library in one volume,” says Burdick.

Like most anything else in this pieced-together paradise,  that’s pretty much where the agreement ends. The resulting list is a hodgepodge of old and new, fiction and memoir, nature and humanity. And even a little poetry.

Burdick mentions several other favorites, such as Philip Terrie’s Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks (second edition, 2008)—“By far the best history of the region,” he says—and Elizabeth Folwell’s recent anthology, Short Carries (2009). He also offers a nod to a past generation: “Everybody gives Murray’s Ad­ventures in the Wilderness (1869) its due, but I favor The Adirondack; or, Life in the Woods (1849) by Joel T. Headley as an even better example of the 19th-century romantic travel narrative that helped turn the Adirondacks into a vacation destination.”

Headley’s classic isn’t the oldest volume to make the cut. That honor goes to preacher John Todd’s 1845 Long Lake, plugged by former Adi­rondack Museum curator and an­tique-book expert Ted Comstock, of Saranac Lake. Todd’s ac­count of his visits to Long Lake is a rare record of one of our earliest pioneer settlements and, says Comstock, “would hold up to anything written today.” As an invaluable resource, Comstock points to Dorothy Plum’s Adi­rondack Bibliography, an ex­haustive list of every book, pamphlet and article published on the area through 1955, and her Adirondack Bibliography Supplement, continuing the work through 1965.

John Ernst, board member of the Adi­­­­­­­­rondack Community Trust, offers titles ­ he hopes are “a bit more unusual,” like Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son by Adam Hochschild. The 1986 autobiography gives a glimpse inside a privileged Adi­rondack childhood and the complicated relationship between the au­thor and his dad, mining magnate Har­old Hochs­child. (The elder Hochs­child wrote Township 34, a comprehensive history of Blue Mountain Lake that provided the foundation for the Adirondack Mu­se­um.) Another of Ernst’s off-the-beaten-path picks is Barbara Mc­Mar­tin’s land-use history, Perspectives on the Adi­rondacks: A Thirty-Year Struggle by People Protecting Their Treasure (2002).

Guidebook author and High Peaks historian Tony Goodwin makes the case for The Adirondack Rebellion (1979) by anti–Adirondack Park Agency activist Anthony D’Elia, a voice he believes is not always heard in the pages of Adirondack Life. “If you want to fully understand the park and the people who live here,” he says, “you have to read it. You don’t have to believe it, you just have to read it.” He also offers Frank Graham’s The Adirondack Park: A Political History (1978) as a skillful record of “how the park came to be the current mix of private and public lands.”

Instead of an ode to nature, environmentalist Bill McKibben picks a tribute to the human spirit: Adirondack Portraits: A Piece of Time (1986), the stories and poetry of Jeanne Robert Foster. In the early 20th century Foster traveled the world as a journalist and mixed with the likes of James Joyce and Ezra Pound, but it was her hardscrabble childhood in Johnsburg that inspired her most enduring works.

Ellen Rocco, North Country Public Radio station manager and host of Readers and Writers on the Air, turns to fiction for her selections—especially books about the sensational 1906 Big Moose murder, from The­odore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) to Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light (2003), “because they il­luminate the details … of life in this region. [They’re] more than just wallpaper for a story that has inhabited the national imagination for a century.”

Curt Stager, of Paul Smith’s College, provides one of the only ecological selections in the mix, his own Field Notes from the Northern Forest (1998). “Not to toot my own horn too blatantly,” he says, “but I think [it’s] a nice intro into Adi­rondack natural history.”

Russell Banks’s The Darling (2004), a novel divided between the Ausable Riv­er Valley and war-torn Liberia, is singled out by Adirondack Center for Writing executive director Nathalie Thill. “This book knocked me out,” she says. “It was ab­solutely wonderful.”

She’s also enthusiastic about Jo­seph Bruchac’s young adult novels and Kate Messner’s Champlain and the Silent One (2008), a historical adventure for tweens. For darker tastes, Thill suggests Pagan Time: An American Childhood (2001), a Paradox-set memoir by Micah Perks. “[It’s] just wonderfully bi­zarre,” she says. “You will want to cut your hair very short and scrub yourself with harsh soap after reading this gritty tale of childhood on a ’60s commune.”

In true librarian fashion, Old Forge Library director Isabella Worthen lists enough material to fill half a dozen es­sential bookshelves. Her “very favorite” fiction, though, is William H. H. Murray’s How John Norton the Trapper Kept His Christmas (1890). Anne LaBastille’s re­cord of her life in the backcountry, Woods­woman (1976), ranks almost as high. And, of course, Worthen throws in an “excellent” reference book: The Adi­rondack Atlas (2004) by Jerry Jenkins.

What’s a must-have for Adi­rondack Life veteran Elizabeth Folwell? Adi­rondack Country by William Chapman White (1967) treats readers to “wonderful observations on local history, nature and the seasons.” She adds, “Like a great wine it only gets deeper, sweeter and more complex with age.”

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