Written by Wittliff archivist, Karen Sigler, This article was originally published in the Society of Southwestern Archivist and now resides in Texas State Universities digital archives.
If the world were given your personal library, what would it tell them about you? What if you
were known for your political observations and didn’t mind being blunt about holding the
politicians feet to the fire—wouldn’t you think this person’s library would be primarily political
in nature or at least lean heavily in that direction? This is what I would have thought, until I
began to inventory Molly Ivins’ library. Molly was a bestselling author and hell-raising political
columnist, who died in 2007 from breast cancer. The New York Times described Molly as “a
liberal newspaper columnist who delighted in skewering politicians and interpreting and
mocking, her Texas culture”.
She never had to write fiction because state and national government provided her plenty of
material for humor. She said, “Good thing we’ve still got politics—finest form of free
entertainment ever invented”.
She once told People magazine, “There are two kinds of humor. One was the kind that makes us
chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity. The other kind holds people up to public
contempt and ridicule. That’s what I do”.
In Molly’s library there were over 1,000 mysteries out of the 3,500 titles. Along with mysteries
were a spattering of poodle training books, which appeared to be needed by the evidence of chew
marks left behind on some of the books (the dogs weren’t selective in what they chewed—it was
anything from politics to poodles).
After Molly died in January 2007, her private book collection was generously donated by her
brother, Andrew Ivins to The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. In the spring of
2008, the Wittliff staff went to her home and boxed up her library, which amounted to 80 boxes.
Pictured below is one room of Molly’s home that reflects her love of books.
I was assigned the project of completing the initial inventory and had assumed it would mostly
focus on politics. I was completely wrong! What I found was someone who collected on a
multitude of topics and kept letters from authors, publishers, and admirers of her work.
Before I proceed further, it is important for me to clarify this isn’t intended to be a scholarly
work about Molly, but a personal perspective on the experience of delving into a public figure’s
personal library. It has been a private look into the reading interests of someone who was much
admired by the public for her adeptness in conveying her observations about politics with a
humorous twist. It has been an interesting and often funny journey, along with some sad insights
into a person who has become for me a friend I wish I’d known.
Like many others, I only knew Molly through her writings and commentary, but as the inventory
began to take shape I started to “see” an additional side of Molly other than the one I was
accustomed to reading and for some reason it wasn’t what I expected. Discovering she had a
similar passion for reading mysteries drew me into the collection. Another thing I gleaned from
this intensive foraging into her library was she never seemed to throw anything away. Items laid
in the books ranged from advertisements included by the publisher, bookmarks, boarding passes
(often not hers), credit card receipts, business cards, a dried four leaf clover, and a page torn
from a notepad with makeup tips. The latter suggested she use peach or cream eye shadow all
over the eye along with a warm beige foundation (found among a travel booklet to New York
Molly’s engaged reading style included check marks (anywhere from single √ to triple√√√ and
often times followed by an exclamation point √√√!), underlined words, and comments off to the
Once the inventory revealed that she loved mysteries too, I became curious as to what she would find entertaining—would it be crime fiction or lean toward the cozies, which some might argue aren’t true mysteries (except for those who read them). It definitely wasn’t the cozy venue, but there was a healthy dose of British mysteries. Some of her favorite British authors were Simon Brett, Peter Dickinson, Agatha Christie and Reginald Hill. Along with the mysteries, she also had an interest in nautical sea stories and had compiled the complete set of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels.
Molly often marked passages in her books. There were numerous examples in political books, but humor and biography received considerable attention, too. One that certainly stood out was
from a biography on Napoleon in which Molly blasted Wilhelm Reich for being an idiot (seems her time spent in Paris wasn’t in vain).
Some genre headings, such as addiction and cancer, were not as comforting as others. There were only a few markings in the titles under addiction and none in cancer. It was difficult processing these books, knowing those were the same ones she might have used to deal with her own problems. I worked through this area more swiftly so I could move on to something less serious that didn’t remind me of the personal difficulties she had to face.
Molly’s admirers and fans referred to her in many ways, but the warmth of friendship would often shine through in inscriptions or notes. One of my favorites was from the author Bud Shrake who inscribed a copy of his novel The Borderland to Molly shortly after learning that she was battling cancer, which Shrake referred to as “the Red Queen”.
Valentine’s Day 2009 started out in a cold secluded room with Molly’s library. It was also a day I hoped to finish the initial inventory of the last of 80 boxes so I could begin the bibliography of her library. One of the last books I opened contained a letter that began, “Dear Molly, Happy Valentine’s Day!”. I can’t explain it, but at that moment it seemed as if Molly was right there with me. The unlikelihood of finding this particular letter out of 3,500 titles and on Valentine’s Day seemed remarkable and could be explained only as another intervention from Molly. I occasionally have these types of occurrences when working with other collections and have now begun to call them my “Molly Moments”.
We set up an exhibit of her library at Texas State University in the summer of 2008 to give visitors a cursory glance at what Molly read. It was hugely successful, but its brevity left many still wondering, “What did Molly read”? One of the best ways to answer this question will be for the reader to meander through the genre headings and titles in the annotated bibliography of her library, which has been completed, but is not yet published.
Whatever revelations about Molly I have imagined (and believe me working with this collection has led to an active imagination), it has been an enjoyable journey into becoming acquainted with Molly Ivins from a unique perspective.