In Response to Kirk Brown’s Short History of UNC Press

Thank you so much to Kirk Brown for his short history [recently featured on the UNC Press Blog], which both summed up a hundred years of UNC Press activity and brought those decades to life. Rather than try to enlarge on any aspects of Kirk’s history, I’d like to supplement it. I’ll add to his narrative by taking a look at what the Press offers us today: its books, including a magnificent current catalog.

As I thought about this topic, it occurred to me to start close to home—by looking at my own bookshelves. I’ve whittled my personal library down a great deal in the last years, but by wandering to a few bookcases, I identified twelve UNC Press volumes within about five minutes. I probably could have found more if I’d kept browsing. Most of them were contemporary and/or in print.

On our home shelves of works about North Carolina, I found two examples of the Press’s Southern Gateways Guides. One was Great Day Hikes on North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail, edited by Jim Grode; this short book breaks down the trail for those of us unlikely to tie a handkerchief on a stick and stroll the whole length of it. The other was D. G. Martin’s beloved hymn to food, entitled North Carolina’s Roadside Eateries: A Traveler’s Guide to Local Restaurants, Diners, and Barbecue Joints. In other words, eat your way along the roads and walk it all off on our state-wide trail.

On a nearby shelf, I discovered some of my favorite works on North Carolina landscapes and their histories: a beautiful 1967 edition of John Lawson’s A New Voyage to Carolina, a journey and chronicle from the very beginning of the eighteenth century. And next to that, UNC Press author Scott Huler’s 2019 response, A Delicious Country: Rediscovering the Carolinas along the Route of John Lawson’s 1700 Expedition. Scott Huler details his vividly successful attempt to paddle and hike Lawson’s original trail; this is a must-read for anyone fascinated by both narratives about walking and the history of the Carolinas. Let’s just say the area has changed a bit over 320 years. From a shelf nearby, I pulled down the tale of a very different route—Anne Mitchell Whisnant’s masterful overview entitled Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History, published by the Press in 2006.

Moving on, I found that those last three volumes shared a shelf with Doug Orr and Alfred Stuart’s incredible edited study from the year 2000, North Carolina Atlas: Portrait for a New Century, a major illustrated record of the state of our state in one of its pivotal moments, written up by numerous experts, and with a foreword by then Governor Jim Hunt. And on our coffee table, a very different kind of overview, published only last year: Bland Simpson’s North Carolina: Land of Water, Land of Sky, with photos by Ann Cary Simpson, Scott Taylor, and Tom Earnhardt. Browsing this book is almost like traveling around the state, oneself, and was a comfort to me during pandemic months when even getting in the car sometimes seemed impossible.

Then there’s culture. Masses of the UNC Press books published over its first century fall into this category, just as many are essentially sociological—with plenty of overlap between the two. Shelved among our tall books, but frequently removed to show to friends and family—and strangers—I easily located yet another kind of journey, this one cultural. It’s a trip I know many of you love, too: Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia, Doug Orr, Darcy Orr, and Fiona Ritche’s bestselling and beautifully illustrated coffee-table gem. It was published in 2014 but is out in a second edition as of last year. Move over, Jim Hunt—this one has a foreword by Dolly Parton. From a shelf nearby, I pulled down the record of a very different art form: Weaving New Worlds: Southeastern Cherokee Women and Their Basketry, a 1997 work with plenty of black and white photos of these gorgeous and useful objects and their makers.

Wandering on to one of my personal literary collections, I found Georgann Eubanks’ 2007 volume, Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains: A Guidebook. I struggle with a keen dilemma about this one: should it actually sit with our NC travel guides, next to the trailheads and barbecue joints? But I’m biased, as a writer, and Eubanks is a literary treasure, so it sits next to one of my new favorite regional stories, Family of Earth: A Southern Mountain Childhood. This slim volume many of you will know, too; it’s the recent publication of Wilma Dykeman’s long-lost early memoir of her childhood, perfectly edited and prefaced by her son Jim Stokely, and with a foreword by novelist and poet Robert Morgan. Dykeman, who was born only two years before the founding of the Press, wrote this skillful piece when she was an unbelievable 23 years old, not long after the U.S. entered a devastating European and Pacific war.

On my history shelf, not far from these literary matters, I keep a work by two writers concerned—as Wilma Dykeman was—with our tendency to abuse the natural world: Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver’s 2020 An Environmental History of the Civil War, a topic sadly timely in at least three different ways. And representing both the Press’s longtime—and massive—commitment to works on racial history and to scholarship by writers of color, a 2021. volume entitled Beyond Slavery’s Shadow: Free People of Color in the South by Greensboro professor Warren E. Milteer, Jr.

Maybe you’ll be glad to hear that I didn’t search my shelves further, since this response would go on even longer if I had. But I hope this gives you a taste of what the Press has served up over several decades. My collection doesn’t even begin to cover the Press’s classic works, many of them reprinted, many of them groundbreaking and even controversial in their day, all of them now collectors’ items, from the 1920s through the 1980s. Since its inception, the Press has published roughly 7000 books. Approximately 6000 of these are still in print or are being brought back into print as part of UNC Press’s Enduring Editions project.

A final note, perhaps one of warning. If you love to sit up too late turning through seed catalogs, cookbooks, and reading lists, the UNC Press catalog is as alluring a subject for your midnight lucubrations as you could possibly wish for. A few evenings ago, I logged onto the current catalog—which you can find at—and saw with both excitement and a sinking heart that everything in it is currently discounted 40% in celebration of the Press’s first century. Alas, I’m going to have to build more bookshelves.

Elizabeth Kostova, a professional writer, grew up in New York State, Indiana, Tennessee, and North Carolina. She holds a B.A. in British Studies from Yale College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Michigan.  Kostova is the author of three novels–The HistorianThe Swan Thieves, and The Shadow Land, all of which involve historical research.  Her work has been translated into 40 languages, and her first novel was also the first in American publishing history to debut at #1 on the NYT bestseller list. Kostova lives with her family in Asheville, NC.