The essential Adirondack library
by Niki Kourofsky
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.”
Tags: Adam Hochschild, Adirondack Bibliography, Adirondack Atlas, Adirondack books, Adirondack Center for Writing, Adventures in the Wilderness, An American Tragedy, Barbara McMartin, Bill McKibben, Dorothy Plum, Jeanne Robert Foster, Joel T. Headley, neal burdick, Paul Jamieson, Philip Terrie, Russell Banks, the adirondack reader, the Adirondack Rebellion, Township 34, William Chapman White, William H. H. Murray