My journey began thusly: having decided to visit the Gila National Forest with Husband this summer, I was doing some research on the website (above) relating to our trip: camping, weather, trails, maps, sights to see, what to expect. I was very pleased to find a suggested reading list (scroll to the bottom). Like many avid readers, I often like to do some reading relating to a place I plan to visit.
This reading list consists of some travel books, the Leopold which I was already interested in, and others that I either began searching for or decided I didn’t need. And then there was this one: Some Recollections of a Western Ranchman, by William French. I took a look at my local library’s catalog, without much luck; and then I looked on Amazon and figured out why: this book is long out of print, with used copies running well upwards of $100. Well, I don’t think I want the book that badly; I don’t really know if I want it at all. But I’m interested, because the Houston Public Library does house a copy in the Texas Room at the Houston Metropolitan Resource Center at the Julia Ideson Building.
This had me intrigued enough to pay a visit. I hadn’t been to the Ideson Building in a few years, since I was a library student and toured with my mother. It’s a lovely space. For 50 years, from 1926 to 1976, this building served as Houston’s central library; its namesake was Houston’s head librarian from 1904-1945. In 1976, the Jones Building was opened on the same block, and today that’s our main library, and the one I grew up with; it’s some 5-6 stories tall, and I grew up with the children’s library in the basement, although now it gets a sunnier treatment (following a recent renovation). The Jones Building is, in my opinion, a fine library in its own right, but the Ideson Building is really lovely. Please do go check out some beautiful photographs (and renderings) provided by The Julia Ideson Library Preservation Partners. You can read more about the building and very recently completed and so well-deserved renovation here.
So what of the book? Well, I entered the Texas Room, which bibliophiles would recognize as a classic reading room in the days before Kindle. I was asked to lock my purse in a locker – no pens, water bottles, or theft opportunities allowed! – and then I waited in this lovely space while a librarian fetched the book I wanted from the closed stacks. There were accountant-style lamps on the tables, but I sat near a window and didn’t need one. I was given William French’s Recollections, in two volumes, bound in what I assume was a custom book box, and I gave it a look.
As it turns out, the book itself was not the most impressive part of this visit. I spent a little time with it, and encountered a few funny or poignant anecdotes. But each volume being some 300 pages long, I knew I wasn’t interested in making the commitment with a book I couldn’t carry around myself. It is a memoir by a Dublin-born man who traveled to the American Southwest in the late 1800′s and had adventures there, and I read about ranching, local politics, tracking and hunting bears, frontier weddings, and more; apparently French was a friend to the Wild Bunch including Butch Cassidy, which is part of what has made his memoir of some enduring interest. (Not so much enduring interest, however, that this book is still in print.) I think it has some entertainment value, but is not so well-written or sensational to make for popular reading; clearly it has historical value to the time and place it represents, which is why it’s on the Gila’s list of suggested reading. How it ended up in the Texas Room is a little mysterious, as the librarian I asked said that the collection mostly covers not Texas, but more specifically Houston-related resources; I asked how this book (which mostly covers New Mexico) ended up there, and she guessed that perhaps its donor was somehow related to Houston. No worries, of course; I’m glad this hard-to-find book was available to me to touch and read in such a lovely setting.