Book Junkies

By Kevin Tankersley

Jim and Betsy Vardaman reveal their collection

Pictured: The Vardamans’ library holds more than 4,000 books. / Photo by Chelsea Santos

It’s easy to tell you’re in the home of book lovers as soon as you step in the front door of the Vardaman house. To the left is a case of books dedicated to art. And just past that, a sofa table contains even more art volumes. A hundred or so cookbooks fill floor-to-ceiling shelves in the kitchen, and around the corner, in what used to be the garage, is the mother lode — a collection of 4,000 or so books on topics ranging from Hitler to vanilla. It’s a room devoted to reading, with comfortable furniture and strategically placed lamps. More floor-to-ceiling shelves line the walls, while two windows look out on the two cars sitting in the driveway.

Dr. James Vardaman retired from Baylor University after teaching British history for 33 years. His wife, Elizabeth (Betsy), is the associate dean for special programs in the College of Arts and Sciences at Baylor. Together they led dozens of Baylor student groups in international travel, and their collection and knowledge reflect those trips. They have been attending Seventh and James Baptist Church “for always,” Betsy said.

Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley and his book-loving 10-year-old daughter, Sophie, visited the Vardaman home on a recent Monday evening. They got to talk about books and eat pecan pie and vanilla ice cream.

WACOAN: How long have you been collecting books?

James: I guess since when I was a freshman at Baylor. My brother was here, and I was his roommate for one quarter. This was in 1949. He graduated the next quarter. He gave me two or three books and said, ‘Collect.’ He had two huge collections. One he sold to Truett Seminary. He was a professor at Mississippi State University in archeology. He was also a linguist. He started it; he put the seed in.

Then I gave him all his books back before he left because I had already bought some. I still have two freshman texts from that first year at Baylor. I’ve just kind of collected them ever since. Unfortunately, it’s taxing. It’s cost me a lot of money, but that’s the way it is. I cleaned out my books quite a bit, particularly when I retired. I gave a fairly large number to students and contributed some to the Baylor history department. This is what I brought home and what I’ve added to since. I still go to the bookstore. I don’t need them. I’ll never read them. I’m 86 years old, so I hope I can finish all of them. But I just keep collecting the dadgum things.

WACOAN: If you say you’re never going to read all the books you already own, what’s the impetus behind acquiring more books?

James: I told you, it’s an obsession. A junkie doesn’t worry about what he has or what he thinks he needs. He just keeps on grabbing. And that’s my situation. It’s not rational. I won’t pretend it is.

WACOAN: What are your most recent purchases?

James: This is one of them, [‘The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History’ by Elizabeth Kolbert.’] It got very fine reviews. It’s a fantastic book. Michael Grant is one of the great classical scholars. Unfortunately, I dropped this [‘The Ancient Mediterranean World’ by Robin W. Winks and Susan P. Mattern-Parkes], and the car ran over it.

Betsy: Jim dropped it, and the car ran over it, and he didn’t realize it. He has his name in every book —

James: For years I didn’t do that. But I would lend books, and I knew they meant to bring them back, particularly students, and over and over I never saw them again.

I never told Betsy this, but a student wanted to write a paper on the breakup of Yugoslavia, and I’ve always been very interested in the Balkans. I had a very fine Balkan collection, and I still do. He borrowed some documents and books, and I never saw the guy again.

I had [another] student I remember, and he borrowed a book on Hitler I really treasured. Two years after he left my class I saw him on the campus one day at Baylor. I said, ‘I believe you still have one of my books.’ He said, ‘Yes, but I haven’t finished reading it yet.’ I said, ‘I have a feeling you’re not going to. I want to keep that book, and I want it back in my office this afternoon.’ I really was miffed. I’ve lost so many books. I broke up a collection.

I decided my name’s going in that book. If they don’t bring it back, at least this will help them remember. And if it doesn’t help them get the book back to me, at least maybe their conscience will hurt sometime. I couldn’t tell you how many books I actually have lost. If I hadn’t lent books to a lot of students, and I gave some away — I gave quite a few away — this collection would be a fourth larger than it is.

There’s the ‘Rise of Modern Europe’ [series]. I collected those items meticulously. I started reading them when I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota.

We led [Baylor] groups overseas for years. Fourteen in Britain. We were in Maastricht, [Netherlands,] and Vienna, [Austria,] and Egypt and China. I took a bunch of books to China and just couldn’t bring them back.

WACOAN: You have within reach of your chair here six books —

James: No, look down there.

WACOAN: You have more down here. And there’s a stack over there. How many books are you reading at one time?

James: It all depends. Sometimes I focus on one, sometimes three or four. There’s no pattern to it at all. I don’t have to be responsible to anybody. That was one of the joys of retirement. I could read anything I wanted to. And I don’t have any pattern I read in the least.

I read a book by Nathaniel Philbrick on Custer and Sitting Bull [‘The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of Little Bighorn’]. And then I read another one on Custer by Evan Connell [‘Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn’], which is the number one book on Custer, but [Philbrick’s] was a dual biography.

I’ve read on religion and the Confederacy. The Southern generals, by the way, were more religious than the Northern generals. [Ulysses S.] Grant and [William T.] Sherman never did one thing of a religious nature. None.

Betsy: You just read a book on admirals, ‘The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King — The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea’ by a guy named [Walter] Borneman. It was very, very good, particularly on [Chester] Nimitz and William Leahy. Most people have never heard of Leahy now, but Leahy was probably the most influential military figure in all of World War II.

WACOAN: All the books within reach appear to be history. Do you read other genres?

James: Oh, sure.

I just read a history of vanilla, by the way. I’m interested in foods.

Betsy: He loved that book on vanilla. That was wonderful.

James: Réunion, by the way, this island where this wing from a Malaysian plane [has washed up], it was one time the biggest vanilla producer in the world. Madagascar is now, 80 percent.

Betsy: If he really wanted to tell you what he’s read in the last month, two months, he keeps a diary of great phrases that he reads in all these books. It’s just fascinating for me when he offers me the chance to read some of the things that he’s written in there.

James: I’m on volume 4 now. They help me remember a lot of things.

I just read a history of Western thought. Very, very fascinating. If you hold it in one hand, you have to have another weight to keep from capsizing. It’s by a fellow named Arthur Herman.

I read one in the last month on the Indian maharaja. It’s fascinating. I had no idea I would like the book, particularly. I picked it up for a song at Golden’s [Book Exchange]. My goodness, it just gave me a wonderful perspective on India I really hadn’t had before.

I read a lot of biographies.

Betsy: How many biographies of Hitler have you read?

James: I’m not sure. About every one that’s probably any good and some of them that weren’t.

WACOAN: Why read so many biographies of one person?

James: Who knows? Same’s true with Napoleon [Bonaparte]. Same’s true with [Oliver] Cromwell. That shelf right up there is Cromwell, who is one of my heroes. William E. Gladstone is another hero. Alfred the Great. Those are my three heroes in British history.

It’s not all history. Look over there at the novels. [Anthony] Trollope. I’ve read all of [Joseph] Conrad. I’ve read all of George Eliot. [Thomas] Hardy. I like most things. I’m weak on math, so I try to avoid that.

My wife is also quite a reader. One of the joys of our marriage is that we both have a deep interest in literature.

WACOAN: How long have you been married?

Betsy: Thirty-seven years.

James: She hasn’t brought her books home yet. Some of the books in the poetry section there are hers. She’s going to be retiring one of these years soon. I don’t know what we’re going to do.

Betsy: We’ll build another room on the house for my books. Right? [Laughs.] It will be a smaller room.

James: I don’t know if you looked at our cookbooks. I’m also interested in cooking. Did you show him the art books?

Betsy: I showed him the art books. I didn’t show him the cookbooks.

WACOAN: Betsy, how long have you worked at Baylor?

Betsy: I’ve taught at Baylor for 35 years.

James: She’s associate dean for arts and sciences.

Betsy: I don’t have anything like this depth of knowledge. I love books, and I love narrative. I love poetry, and I love nonfiction books about how to write well. I like nonfiction on the craft of building essays. I love that stuff. But nothing like [James’ collection].

WACOAN: How is this room organized?

James: This wall is British history and literature. That’s European. Over there is religion. This is American history right here. This is medieval, Renaissance, Reformation.

Betsy: Asian history is back here.

James: Asia, China, Japan, India.

Books on odd topics. The history of coal, for instance.

Betsy: He read a book on the history of salt.

James: Codfish. Corn. We’re just interested in a lot of things. I’m not responsible to anybody else for anything I read. We’re very interested in art. I love the Impressionists.

I don’t care for religious art, and I taught Reformation. I don’t care much for saints. I try to steer clear, unless they directly affect, and some do. Saint Francis is the exception for me. I think he’s what a saint ought to be, what most of them are supposed to be.

WACOAN: How many books do you think you have in this room?

James: About 4,000.

WACOAN: Any how many will you bring home eventually?

Betsy: Five hundred.

James: And we have more books upstairs too.

Betsy: We have books everywhere. We’ll probably have 5,000 when we put them all together. And then no one will want them.

WACOAN: OK, what is going to happen to this collection when y’all are gone?

Betsy: I hope some of Jim’s students who have been so affected by the work that they did with him will have a chance to have some of the books they would like to have. I hope we can invite some of them to come here and select books that they can treasure.

Beyond that, we were thinking at one point of offering them to my hometown. I’m from Goldthwaite. We discussed having someone from the library there to take a look or maybe from some other modestly small town that needs library books. But what we’ve been told is that no one has the capacity these days for cataloging. They just don’t have the womanpower or manpower to go in and do that.

People in those situations don’t want your books. We hope some will go to people who will treasure certain books because they were Dr. Vardaman’s. Or maybe the rest of them, I just hope they will be put somewhere in a free library where people can get books they want.

What do you say about it? Who’s going to get the books?

James: I don’t know, babe. I just don’t know.

Betsy: They’re very good insulation.

WACOAN: Have you ever bought a book and when you got it home realized that you already own that book?

James: I refuse to answer.

WACOAN: Oh, I’ve done that.

James: Yes, of course I have. Then I’ll tell somebody, ‘I’ve been thinking about you. I think you might like this book.’

Sophie: Have you written any books?

James: No. I’ve written articles. I’ve reviewed books.

WACOAN: Do you have books by friends of yours?

James: Yes. I’ve had books dedicated to me.

WACOAN: That was nice.

Betsy: Absolutely.

WACOAN: After your brother gave you a few books and said to start collecting, when did it go from that to making a serious effort to having a library?

James: After I had my first job.

Betsy: You showed me that quote from [Winston] Churchill that we both enjoyed so much, about the message of having books around you to almost create conversation with you even when they’re just on the shelves.

James: Yeah. We read a book by Churchill once that most people have never heard of. It’s essence was how to enjoy a book.

He says, ‘Take a book in your hand. Get the tactile sensation of it. Sniff it ‘cause it’s going to have some sort of odor. The older, probably the greater the smell. Open it at some place, at random. Read. Read. Read the introduction. You don’t have to do it first — just make sure you do. And if you’re not going to read it right away, read the conclusion.’ Of course, he had such power of imagery, you want to go out and put your hand on every book around when you get through with him.

Betsy: He described them in such a way that you almost felt the voices were in the room with you even when they were stacked in their proper places on the shelf. There’s really something special about a room like this because so many voices are here.

WACOAN: So much knowledge.

Betsy: Exactly. It’s a beautiful thing to get to sit in the midst of such wisdom, scholarship.

WACOAN: How long have you been in this house?

Betsy: Thirty-seven years.

WACOAN: Was this house —

Betsy: This was our garage. We’re parked outside now.

WACOAN: I think that says a lot about your priorities. The cars are outside. The books are —

Betsy: Inside. Exactly.

WACOAN: How long after you moved here did you enclose the garage?

Betsy: Jim retired in 2000, and that’s when he said, ‘I want a room with books floor-to-ceiling. To do that, probably we have to take in the garage.’ It was his idea for how to set it up. It took about eight months to build the shelves and put some tile down.

James: We had books stacked. We couldn’t get the cars in anyway.

Betsy: It was a mess. That was 15 years ago, so for 14 years, we’ve had this room.

James: We have a lot of music too.

WACOAN: When I came in, I heard something really nice playing. What was that?

James: Schumann’s [Symphony No. 2]. We’ve got so many CDs. And my car is full of them.

WACOAN: Are they all classical?

James: Mostly classical. I like some music that is no longer popular. I like the music of the ‘50s, the ‘40s. Stan Kenton. I didn’t go for jazz much, but [I like] Stan Kenton, Woody Herman. I have no use at all for the heavy stuff, the metal. I don’t listen to much. I listen to [KWBU-FM] every day. But they cut down the classical music now at 12 o’clock [noon]. That just makes me furious.

Betsy: Well, give them more money, and they’ll probably bring it back.

James: They don’t depend on me for their existence.

[To Betsy] Serve them some ice cream and pecan pie. If you don’t have my pecan pie, you’re not welcome here in this house.

Betsy: Well, that’s not true.

WACOAN: This is Sophie’s question. What is the rarest book in your collection?

James: I’m not sure if I have any rare books. My brother, he went for the big old stuff. That never appealed to me. Not in the least. I remember giving away a first edition of [William] Faulkner’s. He said, ‘Hey, that’s a first edition.’ That didn’t bother me. The Booker winner, [A.S.] Byatt, I gave her a book, a first [edition] signed book by William McNeill. She said, ‘This is a pretty important book. It’s got his signature.’ Then it miffed her when I didn’t ask for her signature. None of that means much to me. I don’t say it wouldn’t mean something. When Jimmy Carter was here [in Waco], I had him sign some books because I admired him so much.

WACOAN: When I talk to my students about interviewing, I tell them not to fall into the celebrity syndrome when interviewing someone famous. Don’t fawn over them, and don’t ask for autographs. And then I also admit to asking General James Cross, who was President Johnson’s pilot on Air Force One, to sign his book for me when I interviewed him at his house in Gatesville.

James: Did we have Bill Moyers sign any books? I don’t think we did.

Betsy: No.

James: I just want to make sure that people bring my books back. I don’t care about the rest.

Sophie: What is your favorite book of all time?

James: You know how to ask the questions, don’t you? I’ll tell you the book that influenced me the most. Will that do?

Sophie: Yes, sir.

James: It’s by William Golding, ‘Lord of the Flies.’ I grew up thinking man was essentially good. I wanted to believe in the brotherhood of man, that goodness ultimately could prevail. To paraphrase Faulkner, not just endure, but prevail. And that book convinced me that it ain’t so. [Charles] Darwin never made a distinction between man and animal. Ever.

WACOAN: When did you first read that?

James: When I was a professor at TCU. It had just come out. Students were reading it and wanted to discuss it. And I had a special discussion group of my best students. We would meet once a week. And that book hit the top pretty quick.

Have you read ‘Lord of the Flies’?

Sophie: Not yet.

James: There’s a little scene in it. I want you to remember this.

These young men have survived a terrible disaster, an atomic explosion. And they’ve been put in a cylinder and shot to an island in the ocean. Young men have to survive. And at first they’re very kind to each other, think about each other’s needs. Then civilization begins to erode. And they devolve into their primitive nature of pure selfishness. Survival for me. You and I can be very kind to each other as long as we’ve got a whole loaf of bread. Suppose we just had one slice for a meal, all day long, for all four of us. We might have to rethink how we’d act. Anyway, as you near the climax, there’s a young man, the only man of the boys — they’re not men yet — who really understands. His name’s Simon. And Simon is sort of half-hidden in the trees when the others appear in a clearing and kill this huge sow. They kill the pig and cut off its head and put it on a stick. Then they carry out an ancient prehistorical worship of that pig, hoping to take away its evil spirit. And [Simon] listens. He sees it all. Doesn’t say anything until the boys, the hunters, led by Ralph, desert the clearing. Then he looks at that pig. And that pig looks at him. And the pig says to Simon, ‘Did you think by killing me you killed the beast? The evil in man? No. I’m close to you, Simon. Very close. I’m the reason it’s no-go.’

In other words, evil is close, here. It’s in here. You don’t kill evil out there. It’s in here. It’s inherent in the human psyche. I thought a long time about that. And that changed my perspective.

Betsy: But I also have to say, along with that side of understanding the horrors of the world, and [James has] read them all and knows them deeply, my husband is deeply moved at each great act of kindness. He shows me the stories in the books where someone does the right thing, and it moves you deeply, doesn’t it? So he has that other side to his nature as well.

James: Well, you have to strive against that nature, or it’s no good. You have to strive against being a beast. You can slip, and you will slip, but then you have to pick yourself up and say, ‘I won’t accept this, even though I know it’s true.’

WACOAN: How much time do you spend reading every day?

James: Quite a bit. I won’t give you an hour, but quite a bit, especially in the evenings. Ask my wife. She knows as much as I do.

Betsy: I would say he reads six hours a day. Wouldn’t that be fair, Jim?

James: That’s probably fair.

Sophie: Do you like all the books you have?

James: A lot of them I don’t like.

WACOAN: Why do you keep them?

James: Because it doesn’t matter if I like them or not. I have to understand. I don’t like the Mongols, for instance, but I’m fascinated by the Mongols. Genghis Kahn. I don’t like poverty. I just read Jeffrey Sachs’ [‘The End of Poverty’]. It was mind-blowing.

This is a book you need to read. [‘The Sixth Extinction.’] You’ll thank me. It’s epic. The destruction of the past. I won’t go into details. If you read that book, I think it will be an explosive eye-opener.

WACOAN: Where do you buy your books?

James: Mostly, I buy them locally. At Golden’s.

Betsy: Don’t you buy some at Brazos Books?

James: Yeah, at both of them.

Betsy: But also Barnes & Noble.

James: I was really sorry to see Books-A-Million go.

Betsy: We do enjoy the fact that Barnes & Noble is here, and we don’t buy a lot on Amazon because we want to support the local bookstores. And we don’t want Barnes & Noble to go away.

WACOAN: Do you take advantage of the Waco-McLennan Country Library used book sale?

Betsy: Well, I give books to the library sale. But the way I use the library is I check out a lot of books on CD. Because we live so far out, I can listen to almost a book a week going back and forth.

James: I don’t like listening to books. I like holding them in my hands.

Betsy: I can’t say how much joy there is in listening to a great novel, well-read, as I travel back and forth into Waco and back. It’s wonderful. The library has been my very best friend for many years because of that.

WACOAN: Do you read any books on tablets?

James: Nope. I want to feel the book.

Where are you from?

WACOAN: I grew up in Bellmead.

James: Did you go to LaVega [ISD]?

WACOAN: I did.

James: Where did you go to college?

WACOAN: I went to Baylor University and then the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for my master’s. And Sophie was born in Little Rock.

James: What’s the name of the county you were born in?

Sophie: I don’t know that.

James: Named after a great Revolutionary War hero who was killed in 1778 at the Battle of Savannah: Casimir Pulaski. He was Polish-born. America had two generals in the Revolution who were Polish-born, and he was one of them.

WACOAN: Within your collection is there organization within each section?

James: It begins with pre-medieval. Ancient Celt. The Windmill Hill people. Then it goes through the 20th century. But I filled it up and had to move some back here.

Betsy: And they’re all stuffed in [on the tops of other books].

James: Our nephew was here this weekend, and I recommended a book to him. He spent a year in Japan. I read this book called ‘Silence’ by a Japanese Christian named Shusaku [Endo], who wrote about the Christians in Japan. It’s a story of terrible persecution of the Japanese Christians. Their center was Nagasaki. Matter of fact, that bomb that was dropped yesterday 70 years ago [August 9, 1945] exploded over the largest Christian church in Asia.

Everybody knows the Enola Gay [the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.] Do you know the name of the second plane?

WACOAN: I do not.

James: Bockscar. Bockscar. The bomb did not hit the ground. It was programmed to [explode] above it to cause the maximum destruction. And 70,000 people died. That’s where the Japanese Christians were. It wasn’t as many as Hiroshima, 140,000.

Anyway, this book ‘Silence’ is about a priest who comes and wants to know why a previous priest has renounced Christianity until he discovers why. And he has to denounce Christianity or see his whole congregation die. He’s given a choice. It’s an incredibly wonderful book. I was going to lend it to my nephew. I couldn’t find it. Betsy tried to find it. She couldn’t find it. I know it’s in there somewhere. It just made me sick that I couldn’t pass it along to my nephew who would appreciate it more than anything. He graduated from Baylor a year or two ago. He lives in Jackson, Mississippi.

WACOAN: We were just in Mississippi.

James: Did you drive the Natchez Trace [Parkway]?

WACOAN: We did.

Can we look at cookbooks and whatever else you want to show me?

Betsy: This is his cookbook collection [on floor-to-ceiling shelves in the kitchen]. He’s a very good cook. And he has beautiful Chinese scrolls in the hall from when we taught in China. I have books upstairs, but I’m sure you don’t want to see those.

WACOAN: Sure I do. We’re talking about books. I need to see books.

Betsy: These are my religious books, theology, devotional books that are very important to me. And then this is more the light reading, kind of murder mystery, summer page turners. We have a lot of children’s book here. The ones that I keep in here are the ones I’m working with in some way. These are some great, wonderful nonfiction books that teach me how to write.

Have you read this, ‘The Social Animal’ [by David Brooks]?

WACOAN: I have not.

Betsy: He’s a columnist for The New York Times. I read a lot of David Brooks because I think he’s actually very smart about society and culture. I keep a lot of my books around that I like to draw on for whatever’s going on in my life. Even here, there will be a book or two that I haven’t read.

I have an ancient set of Encyclopedia Britannica. Then the books that I grew up with that meant so much to me were the [‘My Book House’] books in the ‘40s when I was growing up. You could just go into these incredible worlds.

My aunt was Miss Nina Glass. Nina was the principal of Sanger Avenue Elementary School in Waco for many, many years. She would let me sit in the book room for as long as I wanted. Then she would give me beautiful books to read. I had my own bookcase. I started loving the smell of children’s books when I was very young, and a lot of that was [because of] my Aunt Nina. Most of her students are of a certain age, and she was a very special figure in Waco. She was very important to me in terms of just the enchantment of learning and beautiful books.

I used to write for the Waco paper, for the board of contributors. I wrote a piece about Aunt Nina. I think it was the first one I wrote for the paper. When I was a child and I would be sitting in her book room, sometimes for long periods of time, I read this book [‘The Land of Happy Days’ by Dorothy Nell Whaley], and I loved it so much I stole it. It was produced in the 1930s, and it was about being a good person and good health. This little boy sleeps with a pickle because he learned that if you eat really, really bad spicy foods late at night, they come to sleep with you. And that’s not a good thing, so you don’t do that. And don’t eat too much candy.

WACOAN: So it was a book about being a good person.

Betsy: Yes.

WACOAN: And you stole it.

Betsy: [Laughs.] And I didn’t tell her for many years that I had it. But I kept it. It had gone out of circulation, so she really wasn’t going to be using the book too much longer. And it was beautiful.

I shouldn’t be proud. We’re very fortunate that we’ve been able to have such resources that bring us so much pleasure. We hope we’ve been able to share some of it with others, students. It’s not really a big collection or anything. It’s ours. It’s the way we live.

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