Culture / Out West

Western Reading List

Five thoughtful books for those who love reading about the West and its people.

I was reading recently that vinyl record album sales are up. Way up. Like $619.6 million in 2020, compared to $479.5 million in 2019, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. That’s almost 30 percent more than the year before. The COVID pandemic contributed to that, but in an era when we have all crossed the “digital divide,” seeing sales of both analog vinyl albums and paper-and-ink books both on the rise is a comforting turn of events—especially for those of us who love to hold album covers and printed books.

That said, as we try to navigate this most unusual summer dominated by “heat domes,” it seems like a good time to take a deep dive into our Western past and trot out some diverse yet timeless books that are perfect for hunting up some shade and settling in. Many of the titles have some years on them since they were published, but their messages and content are worth the search. The West is our collective place of dreams, and these volumes support the journey.

They Rode Good Horses, by Don Hedgpeth, American Quarter Horse Association, 1990

The late writer, curator and creative thinker, Don Hedgpeth had an incredible impact on the culture of the West. He was the founding editor of Persimmon Hill and Assistant Director at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. In the early 1970s, he became Executive Director at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center and Whitney Gallery of Western Art in Cody, Wyoming. There are few who have written about the culture of the West that could match Hedgpeth’s insight into this unique world.

His 1990 book, They Rode Good Horses – The First Fifty Years of the American Quarter Horse Association, celebrates and educates us to the history of the West’s favorite horse in Hedgpeth’s authoritative yet folksy way. A proud Texan, he tipped his hat to the Lone Star State’s contributions to the breed’s development while giving the necessary national depth his subject needed.

Western reading - "They Rode Good Horses"

“The saga of the Quarter Horse begins long before Texans started tying their ropes hard and fast to the saddle horn,” he writes. “The origins of the breed can be traced to Colonial America. When our forefathers weren’t dumping tea in the Boston Harbor and fighting Redcoats, they did enjoy a horse race. In the beginning, they ran the English horses with which they plowed and rode every day. It wasn’t long before the Colonial farmers down in the Carolinas and Virginia began to trade for a faster horse that was being bred by the Chickasaw Indians. These quick Indian ponies were Spanish Barbs, brought into Florida by early Spanish explorers and colonists. This was the same horse ridden by the conquistador Cortez in the conquest of Mexico; the same that Coronado rode in his search for the golden cities in the American Southwest. This was a type of horse produced from the cross of the North African Barb and native Spanish stock following the Moorish invasion of Spain, which began in the year 710.”

And on and on he goes in the page-turner style unique to Don Hedgpeth—a Westerner who knew his subjects cold. For readers of this magazine, Don’s writings will fit them like seasoned gloves.

Working the West, by William Matthews, Chronicle Books, 2007

Artist William Matthews’ book remains a glorious look at the West he has experienced with some of the people he encountered along the way—all in his exquisite watercolor style. His subjects love what they do and the paintings show them in quiet moments as well as in the heat of action. Matthews has a gift of finding the peace in his subjects. “I have always believed that you find your bliss, to quote Joseph Campbell, in the activity where you can tolerate the boredom,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “A lot of tedious peripheral work and lots of seemingly wasted time are involved in painting. Plenty of destroyed watercolors stoke my woodstove. But I appreciate all of it, and I recognize the value of every bit of the work in the process.”

Highly recommended for your western reading list is "Working the West."

Matthews’ work does not fit the usual “Western art” view. As writer Annie Proulx wrote in the book’s opening essay, “A great deal of art criticism is concerned with labels, influences, categories, and connections. It is not so easy to pigeonhole Matthews. He is not in the Western art tradition that still finds value in Remington and Russell’s storytelling action paintings. Nor does he fit in the ‘post Western’ (as Jean Roberts of Purdue University calls it) camp whose artists are more interested in (often defiantly) transforming or moving beyond that tradition. Matthews’ art is ‘Western’ because of geography and subject matter.” 

Matthew’s paintings achieve a high level of gesture and expression. His breathtaking control of his medium is at once understated, yet complete—the eye and mind seeing beyond the paper and paint. 

Zen and the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel, Vintage Books, 1971

First published in Germany in 1948, with many subsequent editions and translations, Zen and the Art of Archery raises its head from time to time and I have read through it more times than I can count. Author Eugen Herrigel was a German professor of philosophy and for a number of years taught the subject in Japan. It was there during the 1920s where he studied kyudo—the art of the Japanese bow under a master named Awa Kenzo. Kenzo’s approach to teaching placed great emphasis on the spiritual. Herrigel’s book lays out the master’s methodology—a central point being that “through years of practice, a physical activity becomes effortless both mentally and physically, as if the body executes complex and difficult movements without conscious control from the mind.” 

"Zen in the Art of Archery" is a great western read for those involved with horsemanship.

In Kenzo’s universe, the archer must become the bow and between the two, the arrow and its path become the result of the relationship—the archer and the bow, a single entity—the doing of a single task with a spiritual dimension. This book is a helpful read for anyone involved with horsemanship and can help riders with their approach to the horse as one of focus and bonding—or as writer Thomas McGuane has written, “Those who love horses are impelled by an ever-receding vision, some enchanted transformation through which the horse and the rider become a third, much greater thing.”

Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin, Mariner Books, 2010

Temple Grandin should be given the title of National Treasure—like they do in Japan for significant humans within the culture. Her personal experience with autism opened new doors for the rest of us humans to the ways of animals and how we interact with them—whether we raise them to love, or to eat. Her groundbreaking book Animals in Translation drew on her own experience as an animal scientist to deliver extraordinary insights into how animals think, act and feel. In Animals Make Us Human she attempts to give our animals the best and happiest life—on their terms, not ours.

Understanding what causes animals physical pain is usually easy to determine, she says, but in this book she helps us to see the essential emotional needs of animals and then explains how we can help fulfill those needs—be it for pets at home, our horses, farm animals, zoo animals, even wildlife—by how we interact with them. Grandin teaches us to challenge our assumptions about animal contentment and honor our bond with our fellow creatures. She states her cases with wonderfully simple, declarative statements, such as: “Cattle hate being yelled at,” “Pigs are obsessed with straw,” and “Cows like to learn new things.” And there you are.

Temple Grandin's book, "Animals Make Us Human", is a must.

The simplicity of these statements is further illustrated by her view of the importance of having and training smart, sensitive people to work with livestock. Just as her revolutionary approach of being non-threatening when moving cattle; her view is all animals deserve our respect and kindness. She says, “No animal should spend its last conscious moments in a state of terror.” This is a very important and insightful book—from a significant human.

The Valley of the Moon, by Jack London, UC Press, 1998

This 1913 novel by Jack London is titled with that mythic and romantic name as it’s the location—in the wine growing region of Napa Valley—where Jack London was a resident and built his ranch, now a California State Park in Glenn Ellen.

Jack London's "The Valley of the Moon"

It’s the story of a working-class couple, Billy and Saxon Roberts, struggling laborers in Oakland at the turn-of-the-last-century, who left the city life behind and searched, as the pioneers they were, throughout central and northern California for suitable farmland to own and escape the rampant industrialization that Jack London felt would ultimately destroy the planet by using up its limited resources. Sound familiar? This was 1900 California, just 40 years after attaining state hood. 

Historian Kevin Starr writes in the 1998 edition’s forward, “In his frequently stated pleas for respect for the environment and for scientific [read: less intrusive] farming, London anticipated the rising tide of environmentalism in twentieth century California. He presents this philosophy and practice being driven by a post-frontier consciousness that America, both the people and the place, could be used up. Although London does not have the word sustainable in his vocabulary yet, that, in contemporary terms, is what he meant: The effort to create ranch communities and ways of life that are not based upon fatal consumption of resources but, rather, upon integrated cycles of use and re-use set within patterns of nature herself.”

This novel has been described as a “road novel fifty years before Kerouac,” and called “overly romantic” compared to other, more notable books by the author, including The Call of the WildThe Valley of the Moon takes on the issues of living a Western dream responsibly and realizing we own nothing; we simply are renting the place for a spell and should leave it better than we found it. This is a valuable, thoughtful, and yes, romantic read, still in print 108 years after its publishing by one of America’s most beloved writers. 

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