Appalachian Travel: Read Your Way Through Kentucky

Columbus bookstore manager and indie publisher Gary Lovely suggests five books to better understand the Appalachian region of his home state.

Gary Lovely
Columbus Monthly
Five books to help readers better understand the Appalachian region of Kentucky, suggested by Prologue Bookshop manager Gary Lovely

As a book industry worker who was born and raised in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky, my entire life has been molded by the art and culture of our beautiful, strange part of the world. Appalachian literature is expansive and deep-rooted in the beauty of the land, but also the beauty and hardships of the folks who live there. A list like this could be near-infinite, but this is a great start.

“Appalachian Elegy” by bell hooks

This is the first work from bell hooks I read, and it has stayed with me for years. A meditative, powerful work of poetry inspired by her childhood, this book touches on the realities of growing up as a Black woman in the hollers of Kentucky, the treatment of the land, and the politics of a region that we natives love, but constantly hope for its progress. (University Press of Kentucky, 2012)

“A is for Affrilachia” by Frank X. Walker

“A is for Affrilachia” is a gorgeous picture book from former Kentucky poet laureate Frank X. Walker, who coined the term “Affrilachia” as a way to highlight the history and culture of African Americans living in the mountains of Appalachia. Illustrated by upfromsumdirt (Ronald Davis), this collection follows the alphabet with names and places of known and not-so-known figures from African American history in the region. (University Press of Kentucky, 2023)

“Barn Dances & Jamborees Across Kentucky” by J.D. Wilkes

Barn dances and clogging to bluegrass music are integral to understanding Appalachian culture and tradition. J.D. Wilkes, a Grammy-nominated musician who has recorded with Merle Haggard and others, has written an informative history and guidebook to Kentucky’s underground and front porch dancing. While you’re at it, be sure to check out Wilkes’ fiction, “The Vine that Ate the South,” published by Two Dollar Radio, Columbus publisher extraordinaire. (History Press, 2013)

“Perfect Black” by Crystal Wilkinson

Crystal Wilkinson, winner of the 2022 NAACP Image Award and current poet laureate of Kentucky, has written some of the most incredible poems about Appalachia that I’ve ever read, and her book, “Perfect Black,” is a wonderful example. This book is deeply personal and touches on Wilkinson’s childhood and parents, racism, mental illness, and motherhood. A must for poetry readers. (University Press of Kentucky, 2021)

“Y’all Means All: The Emerging Voices Queering Appalachia”

PM Press publishes some of our favorite books in the shop, so naturally, a book about Appalachia stays faced out and on our front tables. “Y’all Means All” is a multigenre, multidisciplinary anthology that celebrates the best parts of Appalachia. This collection is full of hopeful work that highlights the passion art brings to the region. As a bonus, this collection features the talented Columbus photographer and publisher, Julie Rae Powers. (PM Press, 2022)

Gary Lovely is the store manager at Prologue Bookshop and the founder of Harpoon Books, a Columbus independent publishing company.

This story is from the Appalachian Spring feature package in the April 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.