Texas Books

Culture | Five top books about the Lone Star State

Issue: "Heresy trials," Aug. 18, 2001
The Bush presidency has led many journalists to write about how Texas is different from the rest of the United States, but few have done much background research. With the president spending much of August at his ranch near Waco, here are books useful for gaining understanding of Texas history and culture.
Lone Star
T.R. Fehrenbach
A thorough but very readable history of Texas from prehistoric Indians and conquistadors to recent industrial development and social changes.

Fehrenbach, a Texas version of Shelby Foote, attacks a diverse subject with remarkable clarity, succeeding where others have failed. He accurately portrays the events of each movement, documenting philosophical roots and the motivations of their leaders.


Lonesome Dove
Larry McMurtry
Two retired Texas Rangers leave their town on the Rio Grande to drive a herd of stolen Mexican cattle to Montana.

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Novelist and essayist McMurtry won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for this superbly written Western epic that became the basis of the 1989 CBS miniseries that won seven Emmys. McMurtry vividly depicts dozens of major and minor characters while staying clear of the Louis L'Amour-esque romanticism that often plagues Westerns.

Language and situations as rough as the Old West.

James Michener
A semi-historical account of the growth of Texas from the Spaniards in the 16th century to the Oil Bust in the late 20th; told via the interaction of various family lines.

The plot device is clever but the book is sabotaged by Michener's clumsy writing and garbled philosophy. A character who is a dishonest and immoral drunk on one page is characterized as "one of the finest young men the world was then producing" on the next.

Language and adult situations.

Texas Wit and Wisdom
Wallace O. Chariton
This definitive book of Texas humor has anecdotes and riddles about almost everything important in Texas: weather, religion, oil, lawyers, politics, sports, fishing, and, of course, Aggies.

Chariton's mix of humor and Native Texan pride makes him a good archivist of Texas' rich joke history. The book includes some crude preacher jokes but is still useful for both Texans (who will enjoy the classic anecdotes) and non-Texans (who will find excellent examples of typical Texan bluster).

Crudities and irreverent humor.

Tales of Old-Time Texas
J. Frank Dobie
A collection of anecdotes about subjects ranging from blue-norther weather to wild women running through the east Texas piney woods.

Dobie, the most famous early Texas writer, dances around exciting stories. Writing about the Bowie knife, for example, Dobie downplays action and dwells on how Jim Bowie's blade was made and what Bowie thought about it. Dobie said these stories should be told, and that something is lost in the writing process. That's the truth.


With the influx of oil money in the early 1900s, new millionaires searched for ways to spend their fortunes. Since horse racing was not an option in west Texas, the oilmen quickly discovered high-school football and, through booster clubs, turned it into a religion. H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights (caution: bad language and sexuality) tells the story of one worshipped team, the 1988 Odessa Permian Panthers, through a tough season highlighted by injury to a star, death threats to the coach when the team lost three games, and a journey to the state quarterfinals. This book would be good if it were merely another sports book, with excellent writing and believable scenes. But its picture of West Texas after the oil bust-where ex-millionaires sold their houses and cars but still waited two days in line for tickets to see high-schoolers play in the 20,000-seat stadium-is more than that. Mr. Bissinger sometimes overdoes his critique, but he shows dramatically how the season affected the lives of the players and the town.


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