History conference a boon for book lovers

Karl Jacoby 1 with book Shadows at Dawn.jpg
I admit it: I failed you. As a Fine Books & Collections correspondent embedded in Washington D.C., it's my duty to let you know about great opportunities taking place in our nation's capital. After attending my first-ever annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians this month, however, I realize I should have encouraged all of our history book-loving readers to come along.

In my defense, I had only recently joined the organization (it's open to anyone, though geared toward professional historians). And I certainly didn't realize that the event would feature a huge vendor area filled almost exclusively by publishers of all kinds of history books. Some like Penguin Books even brought special guests to their booths -- which gave me the chance to meet Shadows at Dawn author Karl Jacoby. The Brown University professor tells the story of an April 1871 massacre of Apache Indians at Camp Grant in Arizona. They were killed by a group of Americans, Mexicans and Tohono O'odham Indians.

Jacoby picked up the trail of the story because of his interest in issues relating to the U.S. border with Mexico.

"I realized there was history missing here," he told me. "The story of the Apache at Camp Grant is one wish I had on my bookshelves so that I could better understand the world but it didn't exist. That's why I wrote it ... because it was a book I wish I had."

Potomac Books was there, too. You might remember it published one of my favorite finds of the past few years -- Following the Drum, which examines the lives of the women at Valley Forge. I made a mental note to pick up another one of Potomac's intriguing titles: Fruits of Victory: The Women's Land Army of America in the Great War.

The only down side for me during the four days I spent at the OAH meeting was the lack of sufficient time to spend in the books area. I didn't want to miss any of the sessions so I had to patrol the books area through multiple shifts. At Random House, I flipped through the pages of a biography on the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt and thought it looked like a real winner. The First Tycoon promptly won a Pulitzer Prize the next day.

I don't know how many publishers I visited but I knew where my last stops would be. As someone who specializes most of my magazine article and book research on the American Revolution, I returned to Basic Books to pick up a copy of Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of the American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War by Pulitzer winner Edwin G. Burrows. 

Then it was time for some weight lifting: The University of Virginia Press had so many fascinating books on the Revolution that I filled up an entire backpack and shopping bag. My hottest grab was the fresh-from-the-press first volume of The Selected Papers of John Jay. I completed my transaction, shook editor Richard Holway's hand, and headed for the Metro: I couldn't support any more weight without tipping over.

My history euphoria lasted for several days, as did the guilt of not making you aware of the event. Next year's Organization of American Historians' meeting takes place March 17-20 in Houston. Make your travel reservations today, and bring an empty suitcase for books.

Now we're even.