While a book by any other name may be just as readable, it just doesn’t smell as sweet.
Jeff Weddle’s career, as a librarian, college professor, and author—with a newly published collection of short stories—may be diverse, but it all centers around one thing, a love of “the book.”
“Books have always been a love of mine my whole life,” he said. “They’ve always been the common denominator in what I do.”
As an associate professor of library and information studies, Weddle, of course, keeps up with all the changing forms volumes of information take, in this age when a “book” can just as easily be a collection of electrons on your telephone.
But there’s a special place in his heart for what’s technically known as “the codex” – ink letters printed onto folded tree-pulp pages bound into a volume.
“The codex is only a fraction of what the book has been,” he said, noting that just as electronic book readers are a more recent innovation, there were scrolls before bound books. “So there’s a certain chauvinism to saying only a codex is a book. But for me, that’s what a book is. That’s a limitation of mine; I can acknowledge that I’m an old fogey.
“Digital books almost feel ‘throw-away,’ except there’s nothing to throw away.”
That love affair with books is reflected in Weddle’s oeuvre as an author. His first book, “Bohemian New Orleans,” chronicles the growth of French Quarter publishing house Loujon Press. Published by the University Press of Mississippi, the book won the UPM and Mississippi University for Women’s Welty Prize.
His second, a poetry collection titled “Betray the Invisible,” was published by Mary Ann Sampson, a former UA Book Arts student who founded her own imprint. Sampson approached Weddle about printing the collection in a small run similar to the hand-crafting techniques described in “Bohemian New Orleans.”
“It’s really the result of everything I ever wanted,” he said of the collection. “It’s a coincidence that I happened to be in a place where it could happen, but it really was the perfect progression.
“But it wasn’t anything I did, because I didn’t think I was good enough.”
His third book, “The Librarian’s Guide to Negotiation,” was co-authored with his wife, Jill E. Grogg, and Beth Ashmore.
His newest book, a short story collection named “When Giraffes Flew,” is a long-gestating labor of love for Weddle.
“The stories were written over a long period of time,” he said. “There are stories here that I wrote when I was at Ole Miss, 20 years ago.”
Weddle began his career in his native Kentucky and currently teaches at the University of Alabama, but among the detours wedged between those two were multiple stays over many years in Mississippi, including time as a student at Ole Miss, a library director in the heart of the Delta, and an instructor at The W. The influence of time in the Magnolia State can be seen throughout “When Giraffes Flew,” a collection of dark Southern gothic vignettes.
“Oxford is a presence in the the book, sort of a shadow,” Weddle said. Erstwhile Oxford pub Ireland’s is namechecked more than once, and the story “Faulkner and Pete” begins at Faulker’s grave.
In addition to the town’s cameos in the book, the flavor of the stories was also influenced by the writers he met there, including Larry Brown and Pulitzer nominee Barry Hannah, under whom Weddle studied at Ole Miss.
“I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was a little boy, and most of my life I wasn’t very good at it,” he said. Taking Barry Hannah’s classes at Ole Miss changed that. “That’s where I learned to write. He taught me how to write a story.”
“There’s a story in there, ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ that was the first story that I wrote for Barry Hannah. I got an A on it.”
Another story in the book, ‘Ditto’ has a unique claim to fame. “Barry Hannah wrote the last line of that story,” he said. It was another story written for class. Hannah gave it good marks, but scrawled one last line at the end of it. Weddle, of course, decided to keep it. “People buy this book, they get Barry Hannah’s last unpublished sentence.”
“When Giraffes Flew” also reflects Weddle’s stint as the manager of the library system in Sunflower County.
“It was a different world from Oxford,” he said. “Oxford is rich and beautiful, and the Delta is poor and beautiful.”
Though he now lives in Alabama, Weddle said he has fond feelings for the state where he met his wife and the oldest of his two children was born.
“I moved to Mississippi three times, and each time it was the right move. I loved Mississippi; I love Mississippi now.”
Story by David Hitt // Photos by Lauren Wood