The first project I initiated upon my being named the James Still Writer-in-Residence was the dream of a Reading Room in the new May Stone Gathering Place. This reading library would house essential texts from the Appalachian literary tradition and would offer a special place for visitors to read, learn, and share the company of those stories and songs that have come before us.
While literary schools frequent the American tradition, the Appalachian literary tradition is unique among them, as it is a time-proven movement tied to a particular land and people. In this context, tradition develops a new meaning and begins to provide, not only important works of the past, but a living imaginary from which new stories and songs will continue to be written for generations. I wanted our new Reading Room to be a space that would welcome any wayfarer into the circle.
One year later, the Reading Room is a reality, and it is already better than I could have dreamed. Thanks to The Brier Assembly campaign, our shelves are filling. Our community members have donated copies of influential works from their personal libraries or those written by authors long gone. Contemporary writers have also donated signed copies of their own books, while still others have given scarce, out-of-print editions, ensuring the space offers a timeless sense of who we are.
But what’s been especially meaningful to me is the organic way in which our tradition’s unique relationships have come to the fore. On these shelves I’m placing new paperbacks by Fenton Johnson next to poetry by Nikki Giovanni next to Cherokee folktales. But I’m also placing a copy of Silas House’s Eli the Good, signed to Appalachian scholar laureate Loyal Jones, who was kind enough to gift it to us. Jeff Biggers boxed up and sent over his entire collection of rare Don West works. And from Elizabeth Watts’ library, I just pulled the copy of River of Earth that Mr. Still signed to his friend.
In his poem “The Brier Sermon” Jim Wayne Miller asked the question, “What’s it like–being born again?” It’s something I think writers ask themselves all the time, then publish book after book never considering the consequential answer. Miller had the audacity to answer it: “It’s going back to what you were before / without losing what you’ve since become.” With each new generation, our tradition has been marked by extraordinary innovation. I think this is because we’ve shared the power of story and song with each other, not because of any profession, but because it’s our way of building a real nice life.
This summer, we will still be accepting donations to The Brier Assembly. I hope you’ll contribute to the Reading Room and, when you’re next in the area, come by for some quiet time on the porch with a good book. Trust me. It’s so much better than your iPhone. — Rebecca Gayle Howell