Friday, December 24, 2010

Author and Professor: Dr. H.W. Brands

On a whim just a week before I left for Austin, I contacted Dr. H. W. Brands,, author and professor of history at the University of Texas, about possibly meeting him while there. Graciously he accepted my invitation and suggested that we meet for breakfast at an Austin classic, Austin Java.

Being a University of Texas history major, gives me additional reason to enjoy his books. I previously met Dr. Brands when he spoke at the South Dakota Festival of Books in Sioux Falls in 2004. By coincidence, I discovered two of his books, Lone Star Nation and The First American, just before the festival. The topics of these books, the birth of Texas and Ben Franklin are two of my favorite subjects. His talk in Sioux Falls was on an upcoming book on Andrew Jackson. Following his talk, he signed my copy of Lone Star Nation and we talked briefly about Austin and UT.

I do not know what Dr. Brands was expecting when he agreed to meet with me. Deb and I greeted him around 8:30 am. I did not bring books to sign or a written agenda. In my mind, I had two specific questions about his books, but mostly, I wanted to get a feel for his style, his opinions and his future books. You, also, have to understand that I am very jealous of people that are very knowledgeable and extremely articulate because they have so much to offer. As you can see from this blog, I am neither. In fact, I usually tell people that English is my second language and that I do not have a first.

To begin, we talked about North and South Dakota. He is on the advisory board of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, Dickinson, North Dakota. Dr. Brands has a basic understanding of East River versus West River as we know it in South Dakota. We discussed the new oil finds in North Dakota and how they are pumping large funds into North Dakota state government coffers. I told him about Hyperion Oil’s proposal to build a refinery in southeast South Dakota for oil from the Canadian Tar Sands. I presume North Dakota oil will find its way there, if the refinery is built.

So much for the ice breaker. We got down to talking about his books. He talked about a couple of books that are to be coming out next year but I will leave that for another time. Dr. Brands picked up on technology when I mentioned about listening to his books as well as reading them. Accordingly as an author, he considers digital formats such as Kindle or Nook and spoken formats as well as print when writing today. While the author and publisher have absolute control over how the words and pictures appear on a printed page, in digital format they have no control. The device owner chooses the font size and layout on their device. In the spoken or story format paragraphs lose their importance. He is very excited about the spoken format. Stories have been the way to pass information for millennium. Writing is a relatively recent invention. While I am aware of all of this technology and use it, I never contemplated how they differed from printed material. I do not know how a writer meets these challenges effectively in the same work.

We last discussed my questions about his books. Probably no one is interested in knowing why the Americans mostly settled between the Brazos and Colorado Rivers in Texas and did not colonize further south into present day Mexico. Or why Dr. Brands does not believe Masonry influenced Benjamin Franklin? His answer on the Americans in Texas convinced me. The area where they settled was fertile. Going south the soil quickly becomes very poor. His answer on Masonry left me thinking about which came first, the chicken or the egg. Ben Franklin was a person who did good deeds. Did he become a Mason because joining the fraternity was the popular thing to do? As we know, many of our founding fathers including George Washington were active Masons. Masonry teaches doing good deeds. Or by joining was he validated in doing those things? I want to think that Masonry was at least a partial influence. Being a Mason undoubtedly affects my judgment.

I want to thank Dr. Brands for taking the time to meet with Deb and me. This breakfast was truly one of the highlights of my trip. I look forward to reading his future books as well as several others that I have not yet read. I hope that when my travels again take me to Austin I can call my friend, Dr. Brands, and absorb more of his knowledge.

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