Kentucky is my land— and my literature, too


Editor-in-chief Bailey Vandiver’s personal bookshelf with decorative state of Kentucky.

Bailey Vandiver

When I was about 8 years old, my great-grandparents gave me a copy of The Thread That Runs SoTrue by Jesse Stuart for Christmas. I already loved to read, but for some reason that book didn’t appeal to me, and it got lost on my bookshelf.

A decade later, I rediscovered the book and realized it was by a renowned Kentucky author— the same author who wrote one of my favorite poems, “Kentucky is my land.” It was the 11thbook I read in 2017, which I know because I set a goal to read 100 books in the year and kept count of every one.

I ended up reading 127 books in 2017, which you can read about here. I set the same goal at the beginning of this year, and I finished my 100thbook of 2018 just last night. So when I woke up this morning and learned that it’s National Kentucky Day—a holiday meant to celebrate Kentucky’s joining of the United States, making us the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains to join the Union— it was a perfect opportunity to revisit some of the wonderful books by Kentucky authors I’ve read in the two years. 

Here are three suggestions of books by Kentucky authors or about Kentucky that every Kentuckian (and everyone, period) should read to celebrate National Kentucky Day:

On Homesickness by Jesse Donaldson: This lovely book put a smile on my face the entire time I was reading it. It’s a book of poetry, with one poem for every county in Kentucky. I would describe it as a love letter to this commonwealth.  

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limon: Poet Ada Limon is not from Kentucky, but she lives here now, and this book of poetry about her move to Kentucky is beautiful. My personal favorite is “How to triumph like a girl,” about female racehorses. 

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan: This book, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, is a fascinating portrait of Kentucky itself— showcasing the good, the bad and the ugly parts of Kentucky’s history, including horse racing, family and racism. It’s a longer read, but it’s so worth it. 

Of the 227 books I’ve read in the past two years, only 16 were related to Kentucky. This is not enough, and I hope you’ll join me in my commitment to read more Kentucky literature in the future. To aid in that, here are three Kentucky books currently on my bookshelf that are on my reading list: 

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry: I’ve read several of Berry’s essays, but I am excited to read his fiction for the first time. 

Clear Springs by Bobbie Ann Mason: I’ve read and enjoyed In Country, but I am excited to read Mason’s memoir. A few weeks ago, Mason hosted a book signing, and our opinions editor Sarah Ladd went. Sarah very sweetly got this book for me, complete with a message and signature from Mason.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren: It seems like this book was written just for me— as a Kentuckian, an avid reader and a political science minor. I can’t wait to finally read this classic. 

This list of six books is far from exhaustive, as Kentuckians have produced and continue to produce amazing literature— including by many professors right here at UK. I can think of no better way to celebrate this state than by celebrating the people and the literature that tells its stories.