If you could have just one book about North Carolina

by DG Martin

A brand new book is the answer to the question so often put to me: “If you were to recommend just one book to help me learn about North Carolina, what would it be?”

UNC Press publishes more than 100 books a year. It is giving this book the most promotion – ever. The press’s excitement for this book reminds me of a Carolina basketball pep rally.

Their enthusiasm is understandable. They have been working with the editor and organizer of the book for 15 years. The editor is the legendary William S. Powell, author of the leading North Carolina history books, a multi-volume set of North Carolina biographies, a popular gazetteer that describes the names of North Carolina places and many other books and articles about our state’s history and culture.

The book we have been waiting for is the Encyclopedia of North Carolina. It is a giant volume, taking up about 1,300 double-size pages. More than 2,000 articles are organized alphabetically, beginning with “Aberdeen & Rockfish Railroad” and ending with “Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.” For information about topics not the subject of a specific article, there is a very useful, comprehensive index.

To check the encyclopedia, I first looked up some topics that I know something about, like the state fair. I have written several columns and an article for Our State magazine about the fair. Also, I wrote a book review of Melton McLaurin’s The North Carolina State Fair: The First 150 Years. When I read the encyclopedia’s article on the state fair, I was amazed at how well it covered the important bases. I understood why the article was so good when I saw that its author was the same Melton McLaurin who wrote the book.

Similarly, I have always been interested in the 1950 US Senate primary election contest between Frank Graham and Willis Smith, a defining event in North Carolina political history. The authoritative account of this race is a book by Julian Pleasants and Augustus Burns. They are also the authors of the encyclopedia’s fine article on the same topic.

One more personal example: In preparing for my “North Carolina Bookwatch” interview with Charles Frazier about his new book Thirteen Moons, I needed more information about the Cherokee Indians, who are central to Frazier’s story. The encyclopedia gives a wonderful summary of the culture and history of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and a guide to other authoritative references. Just what I needed.

Appropriately, since he is the leading expert on so many North Carolina topics, Professor Powell wrote a number of articles. He also recruited hundreds of other people to write about particular topics. Many are “the experts” on the topic. Although there are a variety of authors, almost all of them write in a clear, direct, and understandable style. As a result, the encyclopedia is not only interesting and informative. It is also fun to read.

No one-volume reference book can cover everything. This one, for instance, does not include articles about North Carolina people. There are no entries for James B. Duke or James B. Hunt. Nor will you find articles about Zeb Vance, Josephus Daniels, Julius Chambers or the hundreds of other North Carolinians who are essential parts of what North Carolina is. You can find lots information about each of them by referring to the encyclopedia’s index, where you will be guided to other encyclopedia articles that mention them. But for detailed information you will have to go to other places, including, of course, Professor Powell’s multi-volume The Dictionary of North Carolina Biography.

Professor Powell notes in his introduction that the encyclopedia is an extension of The Dictionary of North Carolina Biography and The North Carolina Gazetteer, where there is more information about 20,000 North Carolina places that could be fitted into the encyclopedia.

The encyclopedia’s limited coverage of biography and place names only emphasizes its virtually complete coverage of other important North Carolina topics. Surely, we will find other topics that we wish Professor Powell had included, but so far I am having a hard time finding them.

The encyclopedia will be my basic one-volume North Carolina reference book for years to come.