Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Small Books

The invention of pocketbooks, those ubiquitous paperbacks no vacationer would go to the beach without, changed the publishing world in the late 1940s.

Now, several Texas book publishers (and one from across the Red River) are trying a new format: a pocketbook-sized hardback. Until someone comes up with a better generic description, let's just call 'em small books. The books are coming from academic, regional and, fittingly, small presses.

The leader in this recent innovation, at least in number of titles published so far, is Texas Christian University Press. They've brought out seven smalls to date, with another due out this fall. They call the series Texas Small Books. Each runs from 84 to 88 pages and sell for $9.95.

The one that's had the most resonance with me so far is Midland writer Patrick Dearen's "Lone Star Lost: Buried Treasures in Texas."

Dearen has dug up 10 new tales of old treasure and previously unpublished pictures to go with them for an enjoyable read that will make you want to go metal detector shopping long before you're finished reading it. This is a solid gold book from a long-time pro writer.

Other titles from TCU Press include "State Fare: An Irreverant Guide to Texas Movies" by Don Graham; "Extraordinary Texas Women" by recently retired press director Judy Alter; "Texas Country Singers" by Phil Fry and Jim Lee; "Great Texas Chefs" also by Alter; "Texas Football Legends" by Carlton Stowers and "Braggin' on Texas" by Sherrie S. McLeRoy.

Alter says that from a publisher's standpoint, the little books are fun to produce. The idea behind them is to have a title priced low enough to be an impulse purchase that will bring Texas subjects to a broad, popular audience. So far, she says, sales have been good.

From State House Press, operated by McMurray College in Abilene, is "Buffalo Days: Stories from J. Wright Mooar" as told to James Winford Hunt and edited by Robert F. Pace. This 126-page small book (though slightly larger than the TCU titles) sells for $19.95.

That's pretty pricey for this size book, but for those interested in the 1870s Texas buffalo hunting era, there's a lot of good content here. The book is a compilation of stories that originally appeared in the old Holland's magazine in 1933.

The smallest of the small books I've seen so far is Allan G. Kimball's information-packed "The Big Bend Guide," published by Great Texas Line Press in Fort Worth. Measuring only about three by three inches, the 104-page softcover book sells for a downright reasonable $5.95 -- a lot less than a cheeseburger in a lot of places.

While diminutive, Kimball's book contains plenty of useful information for anyone planning a visit to the 800,000-plus-acre Big Bend National Park or any of the beautiful country around it. The literature of the Big Bend is almost as extensive as its rugged desert and mountain terrain, but Kimball's guide is the best small source I've seen.

Perusing it, I was amazed at how much information he was able to pack in. Of course, he's an old newspaper guy like me, so no wonder. On top of that, his grandfather rode with the U.S. Cavalry when it protected the Big Bend from Mexican bandits and probably was involved in naming Panther Peak, below which sits the national park headquarters. He knows the park well.

The book includes 10 top travel tips, 10 top hikes, top intineraries, a check lists for motorists, a list of Web sites and bibliography. There's also a section on Big Bend area place names. (Insider's tip: Marathon, Texas is pronounced MaraTHAN, not MaraTHON.)

To give the University of Oklahoma Press its due, a couple of years ago it released "A Texas Cowboy's Journal: Up the Trail to Kansas in 1868" by Jack Bailey. Bailey is the first person known to have kept a diary on a cattle drive from Texas to the railroad in Kansas, but it stayed in private hands and unpublished until the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum acquired it and got well-known Western historian-writer David Dary to edit and annotate it. The 111-page semi-small book sells for $17.95.

Finally, from Bright Sky Press, is "Historic Texas Book of Days" by Yvonne Bruce and Ann Bruce Henaff. Covering every day of the year in unumbered pages, this book also sells on the high end for its size at $19.95. But it is beautifully illustrated and contains some intriguing Old Farmer's Almanac-style facts particular to the four seasons in Texas. Unfortunately, the book does not predict when the Central and South Texas drought will end.

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