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Arizona 100: Essential Books for the Centennial

Artistic mock-up of books in the shape of letters spelling out AZ 100 BKS

A new exhibition at Special Collections showcases 100 essential books that define the cultural, historical, environmental, and political landscape of the Grand Canyon State. “Arizona 100: Essential Books for the Centennial” is a diverse bibliography of must-reads that, according to the selection committee, when reviewed collectively, shout “This is Arizona.”

“Arizona 100” was curated in conjunction with a special edition of The Journal of Arizona History, published quarterly by the Arizona Historical Society. Inspired by the state’s Centennial, last year a group of seven bibliophiles set out to develop a list of fiction and non-fiction books essential to Arizona. Surveying works from Spanish times to the present, the final 100 titles were “selected on the basis of their historical importance and literary merit.” The special edition of The Journal of Arizona History is the culmination of this yearlong effort and offers an in-depth bibliography of the selected titles with a summary, assessment of significance, and suggestions for further reading for each title.

Among the titles selected is The Personal Narrative of James O. Pattie, published in 1833 and the oldest book on the list. The adventurous tale of a young fur trapper, the book “captures readers’ imaginations with its vibrant description of the western wilderness viewed through the romantic lens of American expansionism,” according to selector Bruce Dinges.

The most recently published title, the 2010 book A Gift of Angels: The Art of Mission San Xavier del Bac by Bernard Fontana and Edward McCain, offers an identification of nearly 200 saints and angels that adorn San Xavier del Bac. With its detailed color photography and flawless book design, selector Steve Cox lauds A Gift of Angels as “a thing of beauty as well as a monumental study of Spanish colonial religious art and architecture.”

Arizona’s often turbulent path to statehood is well represented in the bibliography: Of the 100 books selected as essential Arizona reading, 24 titles were published before 1912. Included in those titles is Life Among the Apaches (1868) by John Cremony, Memoir of the Proposed Territory of Arizona (1857) by Sylvester Mowry, and Romance of the Colorado River (1902) by Frederick S. Dellenbaugh.

“Arizona 100” also highlights 14 titles authored or co-authored by women including:

  • Vanished Arizona: Recollections of my Army Life (1908) by Martha Summerhayes paints “a rare portrait of Arizona during the Indian Wars told by someone equipped with a discerning eye, a fluid pen, and endless curiosity” according to selector Bruce Dinges
  • Ghosts of the Adobe Walls (1964) by Nell Murbarger which selector W. David Laird notes is “still readily available to take along on a weekend jaunt” to Arizona’s ghost towns
  • The Bean Trees (1988) by Barbara Kingsolver which, according to W. David Laird, is a story filled with “humor and human understanding” in a Tucson setting
  • Yes is Better Than No (1977), Byrd Baylor’s only novel written for an adult audience

The University of Arizona Press, founded in 1959, published 20 of the titles selected for the Centennial bibliography including Arizona: A History (1995) by Thomas E. Sheridan, Going back to Bisbee (1992) by Richard Shelton, and Me and Mine: The Life Story of Helen Sekaquaptewa (1969) by Helen Sekaquaptewa and Louise Udall.

The bibliography is the result of more than a year of rereading, reviewing and lengthy discussion by the seven reviewers, all of whom have deep connections with the literature of the Grand Canyon State:

  • Bill Broyles, retired teacher, writer, Southwest Books of the year contributor, research associate at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center
  • Steve Cox, director emeritus, University of Arizona Press, more than 40 years of experience as a writer, editor, and publisher
  • Bruce Dinges, director of publications and editor of The Journal of Arizona History at the Arizona Historical Society
  • Alfredo Gonzales, bookseller, owner of the Chiricahua Book Company
  • W. David Laird, author, editor, Southwest Books of the Year contributor, and former director of the University of Arizona Libraries
  • Roger Myers, librarian at Special Collections in the University of Arizona Libraries
  • James J. Owens, antiquarian book dealer and the owner of Thorn Books in Tucson

Their goal in developing the Centennial bibliography and in showcasing the selections in “Arizona 100: Essential Books for the Centennial” is best described as providing Arizonans with “a collection of emblematic works that, taken as a group, define who we are and what we are.”