Monday, April 6, 2009

Essential Literature: The Adirondack Reader

For 45 years the cornerstone of any Adirondack library has been The Adirondack Reader, compiled and edited by Paul Jamieson. The anthology, published by Macmillan in 1964, collected pivotal and perceptive accounts of how people have experienced these woods since the arrival of Europeans 400 years ago.

Any true Adirondack geek already has a copy of the Reader, but now you need another. The Adirondack Mountain Club last month published a third edition that adds 30 entries written since the second edition came out in 1982.

Another reason to covet this update: pictures! A 32-page color insert of drawings, photographs, engravings and paintings spans Adirondack history, from William James Stillman and Winslow Homer to contemporary painters Laura von Rosk and Lynn Benevento. The original Reader had some black-and-white plates; the second edition had none.

It’s a hefty 544-page tome, but any book that attempts to get at the essence of the Adirondacks is going to be epic. Holdovers from earlier editions (six entries had to be cut to make room) include many “there I was” accounts, starting with Father Isaac Jogues’s 1642 description of having his fingernails bitten off by Mohawk captors (“our wounds — which for not being dressed, became putrid even to the extent of breeding worms”) and becoming the first white man to see the Adirondack interior — the first to live to tell anyway. Hard to top that kind of journey narrative, but almost every piece in the Reader commands attention. Entries weave back and forth between fiction, history, essay and poetry organized into ten subject categories Jamieson established nearly a half century ago.

Mixed in with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Francis Parkman, Robert Louis Stevenson, Theodore Dreiser and Verplanck Colvin are present-day writers Christopher Shaw, Christine Jerome, Sue Halpern, Bill McKibben, Elizabeth Folwell, Amy Godine and Philip Terrie, among others. Neal Burdick contributes an essay on the century-old silence still surrounding the question “Who Shot Orrando P. Dexter?,” a land baron hated by the locals in Santa Clara. Burdick also served as the book’s co-editor, assisting Jamieson, who died in 2006 at age 103.

“It’s still Paul’s book,” Burdick says. “I did the legwork. His name is more prominent on the cover at my request.” Jamieson approved each new writing, and many excerpts and articles were included on recommendations by other writers, Burdick adds. Burdick is editor of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Adirondac magazine as well as a writer and poet in his own right.

More than any other book, this collection comes closest to defining the Adirondack sense of place we all feel but few can articulate. It’s as much a pleasure to read as an education, and Jamieson’s introductory sections feel prescient. He still seems very much the dean of Adirondack letters (a new edition of his classic Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow is also in the pipeline). Jamieson was an author, professor of English at St. Lawrence University, an advocate for Adirondack land preservation and canoe access, and an explorer of this region’s topography as well as literature.

The book is beautiful but alas blemished; sloppy proofreading has allowed typos to creep into the text, in both the older material and new additions. Further printings are planned, perhaps a paperback edition. We hope the copyediting will be brought up to the standards of the writers represented.

The Reader is $39.95 at book and outdoor supply stores, by calling 800-395-8080, or online at www.adk.org.

Related Stories


Mary Thill

Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.




Comments are closed.

Support the Adirondack Almanack and the Adirondack Explorer all year long with a monthly gift that fits your budget.

Support the Adirondack Almanack and the Adirondack Explorer all year long with a monthly gift that fits your budget.