CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – Sen. Brooks McCabe's wife likes to rib him about his reading habits.
“Barbie thinks I'm semi-illiterate because I don't read fiction and I don't read the sports page,” he said.
McCabe probably isn't the person to ask about a new James Patterson thriller, or how the Reds are faring in the National League rankings.
But let's say you're looking for a copy of a graduate thesis from the 1970s about the West Virginia coal industry, or a new biography of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall.
In that case, McCabe's your man.
Over the last 40 years, the longtime state senator has amassed a library of thousands of books focused exclusively on West Virginia, its history, its economy and its citizens. It now occupies a whole room of his South Hills home, with volumes crammed into the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that cover two of its four walls.
McCabe seems to know exactly where each of his books is located, although he has to stand on the back of his well-worn leather couch to reach some of the highest shelves.
He does his reading in a matching leather armchair, which sits in front of a big wood-burning fireplace. On snowy or rainy weekends, McCabe builds a fire and spend hours in this room.
“This is almost my nest here. I'll spend three or four hours a day, Saturday and Sunday, reading there,” he said.
Although he reads as many as 50 books a year, McCabe is in no danger of running out of material. He purchases any West Virginia-related book he finds, fiction or nonfiction, although he reads only the nonfiction. There's even a small collection of West Virginia cookbooks in his kitchen.
“There's a lot more out there than most people think,” he said.
He finds many of his books through other books.
McCabe pays special attention to footnotes and bibliographies, always on the lookout for unfamiliar titles he might find interesting. He jots down the title and author on an index card, which he later uses to track the book on the Internet.
Many times, even the most obscure books are readily available on popular websites like Amazon.com. But McCabe also shops on sites like AbeBooks.com, which specializes in rare and collectible books.
He usually reads multiple books on the same subject. That explains why many shelves in his library are dedicated to specific subjects.
One section is reserved for the Hatfields and the McCoys. One whole bookcase is dedicated to county histories, organized in rough alphabetical order. Other shelves contain books on the coal industry, tourism, Stonewall Jackson, West Virginia's constitutional conventions and transportation.
From Baltimore to Charleston, a thin volume about the B&O Railroad, cost $2.50 when it was first published in 1906. McCabe paid $60 for it. Another book, The Picturesque B&O, describes itself as “historical and descriptive,” even though it was published in 1882.
“You read this, written at the time and you get a different perspective. These people are trying to describe history as they want it remembered,” McCabe said. “That's the fun of it, to see the different interpretations and try to see, ‘Well, what really happened?’”
A section of shelves beside the fireplace is reserved for West Virginia biographies and autobiographies. There are books about well-known natives like Homer Hickam, Gen. Chuck Yeager and Jerry West, but also lesser-known West Virginians like Louis Johnson, one of the founding partners of the Steptoe and Johnson law firm.
They all hold interest for McCabe. He even tries to get copies of family histories, which are usually printed in small runs as a way to preserve a family's memories, rather than mass-market armchair reading.
Most historians would have little interest in those, but they provide a picture of what life was like.
“It's a local take on somebody earning a living at the time,” he said.
While he handles the older volumes with care, McCabe makes the newer volumes his own, scrawling notes in the margins and underlining key passages.
“It becomes part of me. I want to be able to ... very quickly go back and pull out what I need,” he said.
It's an essential skill for McCabe, who now plans to contribute his own book to the West Virginia canon.
He plans to spend the next few years working on an economic history of Charleston as experienced by four of the capital city's prominent families.
The book will begin, McCabe said, with Dr. John P. Hale. Hale, one of the city's early mayors, was the great-grandson of Mary Ingles, an early settler who was famously abducted by Native Americans.
Another section will focus on Charleston's Smith family. Their patriarch, lawyer Benjamin Harrison Smith, greatly influenced the state's constitution, including the way land titles were settled in the newly formed Mountain State.
The book also will include the C.H James family—descendants of Charles H. James, a black man who founded the successful James Produce Co. in the late 1800s—and the Dickinsons, who owned salt mining operations before forming a bank that would one day become BB&T.
“They have a broad enough touch that, through them, I can write the history of Charleston,” McCabe said.
Following those four families allows him to explore the changes in business, politics, transportation and law and follow all the economic depressions and recessions the city suffered over its history.
His underlying goal is to understand how Charleston's economy works.
“Things don't just happen. People make them happen. In a way, we're a product of the events we create,” he said.
For proof, McCabe only has to visit his library.
He was diagnosed with dyslexia as a boy, and it took years for him to learn to read.
Now, he could be the most voracious reader in the Legislature.
“It took me so long to learn how to read, when I read a book, it's like a victory,” he said.
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