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CLASSICS BY WACO AUTHORS and ABOUT WACO
TOP 10 TEXAS BOOKISH DESTINATIONS 2016
Any discussion of Waco letters either begins or ends with William Cowper Brann. Not exactly a favorite son, Brann, an iconoclast who purchased a newspaper from O. Henry in Austin and moved it to Waco, was a plain-spoken and outspoken critic of Baylor University. Gunned down in the streets of Waco in 1898 after publicly casting aspersions on the morals of the coeds of the world’s largest Baptist university, Brann has been one of the most commented-upon men of letters from Waco, and his papers can be found in the Texas Collection at Baylor.
Speaking of famous writers and Baylor, the university’s current president wrote something in 1998 that practically crashed the Internets while curious readers scrambled to read it. It was about a president and a blue dress. Kenneth Starr, yes, that Ken Starr, former solicitor general of the U.S., is now president of Baylor.
On a more lyrical note, the Armstrong Browning Library, free and open to the public, is located on Baylor’s time-honored and scenic Waco campus. The nineteenth-century research center dedicated to the study of the lives and works of Victorian poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning houses the world’s largest collection of Browning material and other fine collections of rare 19th-century books, manuscripts, and works of art. The Library opened in 1951, the culmination of the dedication and determination of Dr. A. J. Armstrong, former chairman of the university’s English Department, and his wife Mary Maxwell Armstrong. It has also become a popular stop for travelers and school groups who are attracted by the love story and poetry of the Brownings, or by the unique beauty of the building.
One of the state’s largest poetry festivals has been held at Waco for more than two decades. The 22nd annual Beall Poetry Festival will be April 6–8 at Baylor. This three-day celebration of some of the finest contemporary poets, with readings, a panel discussion and the Virginia Beall Ball Lecture on Contemporary Poetry will feature Kevin Young, Amaranth Borsuk, and Nicole Cooley as poets and Ernest Suarez as critic. The festival is supported by the John A. and DeLouise McClelland Beall Endowed Fund, established in 1994 by Mrs. Virginia B. Ball of Muncie, Indiana, to honor her parents and to encourage the writing and appreciation of poetry.
Waco has spawned an eclectic group of authors, from the scary to the sublime to the satirical.
• Madison Cooper, who penned Sironia, Texas, a novel that describes life in the eponymous fictional town in the early twentieth century—widely thought to be a thinly disguised version of Cooper’s hometown of Waco. Weighing in at more than 1,700 pages, the book is one of the longest novels in the English language. Written over a period of 11 years, the subtle satire of upper-class Southerners was published in 1952. It won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Award and sold 25,000 copies in its initial printing, but quickly faded from public view.
• Thomas Harris, author of The Silence of the Lambs, was a Baylor student who covered the police beat for the Waco Tribune-Herald. The newspaper has a museum devoted to its history in downtown Waco and has a special—and growing—exhibit of former staff members who are now authors.
• Wild and crazy comedian Steve Martin, who grew up in Waco, has published a number of novels.
• Baylor counts more Texas governors among its alumni than any other university: Lawrence Sullivan Ross (1887–1891); Pat Morris Neff (1921–1925; Neff later served as President of Baylor from 1932 to 1947); Price Daniel (1957–1963), Mark White (1983–1987); Ann Richards (1991–1995). Many of these were also authors, crafting memoirs or books on public policy.
• Self-help author Robert Fulghum, author of nine books, including Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and What on Earth Have I Done? hails from Waco.
It’s only fitting that a city that is home to the world’s largest Baptist university is also the birthplace of Christian literature and the Christian recording industry. Word Records was founded in Waco in 1951 by Jarrell McCracken. The label's name is based on a sixteen-minute spoken word recording written and narrated by McCracken — the first recording released by the label — titled “The Game of Life.” McCracken, then a twenty-three-year-old KWTX sportscaster in Waco, had read an article by Jimmy Allen, a former athlete who became a Baptist preacher, and based his recording on the article (which also is called “The Game of Life”).
The event is based on a full-length match between the forces of Good and Evil with Jesus Christ and Satan coaching the two teams. McCracken was familiar with play-by-play broadcasting, having created virtual baseball games for radio broadcast based on wire reports. McCracken originally presented his “Game of Life” presentation on Sunday nights at various churches around the central Texas area. Everywhere he performed it he got requests for copies. Eventually, he had a short run of records pressed to offer at churches where he spoke. The fictional radio station in the recording has the call letters “WORD,” so that was printed on the label of the custom record. After being asked by a friend when he was going to release a follow-up, McCracken then decided to pursue the label on a more serious level.
By 1976, when McCracken sold part of his interest to the American Broadcasting Company, Word Records and Word Publishing had become a who’s who of Christian recording and publishing. In 1992, Capital Cities ABC sold Word to Thomas Nelson, Inc. for $72 million, and Nelson made two major changes—developing the present swirling W logo (unveiled in 1995) for book products, and also moving its headquarters from Waco to its present headquarters in Nashville. Nelson split the record label and book publishing arms in 1996 when the labels were sold to Gaylord Entertainment. In an agreement with Gaylord, Thomas Nelson continued to use the Word Publishing” name for its book imprint until 2002, at which time it became “W Publishing Group.”
Waco became the center of the nation’s attention in 1993 when a standoff with a sect of the Branch Davidian religious group led to a fifty-one-day siege, by the ATF, FBI, and Texas National Guard and resulted in the deaths of the Branch Davidians' leader, David Koresh, as well as eighty-two other Branch Davidian men, women, and children and four ATF agents. That standoff resulted in a spate of books about the siege, about cults, and the role of blind faith.
These days, Waco makes our list of Top Bookish Destinations not only for its university and public libraries and its publishing history, but for its ample roster of bookstores, including Barnes & Noble; Hastings; Mardel's, Golden Books, and Bankston's Used Books. It’s home to a chapter of the Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Waco Poetry Society. And it hosts Wordfest, one of the state’s top storytelling festivals, held the last weekend of September at the city’s Waco Convention Center, a riverfront facility within walking distance of the historic Brazos River Bridge and many downtown attractions.
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These days, Waco makes our list of Top Bookish Destinations not only for its university and public libraries and its publishing history, but for its ample roster of bookstores, including Barnes & Noble; Hastings; Mardel's, Golden Books, and Bankston's Used Books. It’s home to chapter of the Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Waco Poetry Society. And it hosts Wordfest, one of the state’s top storytelling festivals, held the last weekend of September at the city’s Waco Convention Center, a riverfront facility within walking distance of the historic Brazos River Bridge and many downtown attractions.
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