Tag Archives: old books

Books and More Books

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” –Cicero

The battle between my love of books and reading and the need to avoid old, dusty, musty treasure-tomes wages on. Like most who are on the wagon of no-more-old-books, I do pretty well until I come face-to-face with a heap of them, and then–despite my efforts to resist–too often I succumb to temptation.

I shall blame it on improved health–or the sinus condition that prevents me from realizing just how musty a book really is until it’s too late and I am dragging it home with a mixture of guilt, defiance, joy, and anticipation. To have to chuck it aside when I open it and start reading the first page . . . oh, that hurts.

To have to not only lay it aside, unread, but to seal it up inside a Ziploc baggie hurts even more.

But worst of all is to find a treasure, a book once read and lost, a book that cries out as if to an old friend, a book like a stray puppy with soulful eyes that begs to be taken home and given a safe, warm, dry, secure place on a bookshelf–only to accept that it is in no condition to come home with me.

“I cannot live without books.” –Thomas Jefferson

So it was this past weekend. I was out and about, enjoying the unseasonably hot weather, when I stumbled upon a trove of old books. And not just any old books–the kind best burned rather than dredged from the damp corners of old garages, black and swollen with mold–but instead a collector’s collection, a lifetime’s accumulation of really good reads, a reader’s collection above and beyond an antiquarian’s.

Of course there was a smattering of Victorian volumes with ornate covers, a sprinkling of Edwardian romances with color renderings of Gibson-girl-type heroines glued to their covers, and the requisite books of the Old West that always come highly priced. But the real treasure was to be found past all those temptations, when I found box after box of books by authors I had long ago discovered in my childhood spent among public library shelves, books long since faded from print, books that inspired wonderful old movies now seen only on TCM or not at all.

The first title that leaped at me was LORD HORNBLOWER by C.S. Forester. I pounced with an inner burst of excitement. At that moment, I was thinking of how I struggled in college to assemble a complete set of the Hornblower sea-faring adventures in hardcover on my meager pittance of a monthly allowance. I was thinking also of how I was forced to throw out that set after the house-flood, when the bottom shelves of my entire library suffered damage. And I was thinking with glee, I can assemble another set. Look!

But even as such thoughts flashed through my mind, I knew the heartbreaking truth. I lifted the book and it was too musty for my tolerance level. Back in the box it went. I had to turn away, unable to save it from the awful fate that happens to unwanted books both good and bad.

Another table, another box, more treasure. For now I found a first-edition Pearl S. Buck, and a first-American-edition T. H. White, then moved on to Samuel Shellabarger’s CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE, Rafael Sabatini’s SEAHAWK, Hull’s THE SHEIK, early Grace Livingston Hill, and a Mary Roberts Rinehart mystery that I’d never read.

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island.”

–Walt Disney

Did I buy any of these old friends? Oh yes, a few. The mystery stayed in my hands. I couldn’t bring myself to administer the sniff test lest my heart break then and there. I know it’s probably too musty for me to read, because nearly all the old Rineharts I find seem to fox and molder, and yet I so hunger for her fiction that I will face that defeat if and when necessary. White came home, clean and acceptable, but Sabatini did not. Shellabarger did not. But I will be able to ride across the sands once more with a desert sheik.

[In the night, I promised myself that I would return on reduction day. I could give some of them a second chance. Maybe they weren’t as bad as I thought. No doubt I’d missed several and overlooked others. It’s always best to come back and look again. After all, even if I couldn’t keep them, surely I could harbor them in my garage and find them good homes by selling them to others. However, to my disappointment, I could not return for the discounts. A forty-degree temperature drop in the weather and the threat of a sore throat kept me home. Developing a cold, or administering too many sniff tests for book mold, who can say?]

Are the authors I’ve mentioned completely forgotten? (Not all, perhaps, but surely some.) Are they even recognized? Do their names still resound with readers? They are long gone, their works out of print, their adventures and imagination so much dust. And yet how good they were and are. How deserving to be read still, to ignite the minds of children and adults alike.

While I was looking and grabbing and oohing and laughing over being reunited with old friends, I spoke briefly with a young father who was digging as avidly for treasure as I. His attention was divided, however, by having to watch his four-year-old son. The young man asked me if I was a collector, and when I said, yes, told me of his favorites and shared a find with me that he said he already owned. I thought of how lucky that little boy is, to have a father that loves books so much. What discoveries they will share. What places they will visit in their imaginations if only the child will learn the value of reading and won’t succumb to so many other amusements now out there to ensnare and deflect him.

For I am always looking for the young readers-to-be, hoping they continue to come along. Without them, who is there to write for?



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A Charming Discovery

In past posts, I’ve moaned about how I’ve largely had to give up used books because so many of them are musty and aggravate my allergies. And yet … sometimes the thrill of discovery is impossible to resist.

After all, I was a reader long before I became a writer. The lure of reading remains strong, and I hope it always will be that way. From time to time, my heart overrides my head and I’m willing to sacrifice breathing for the chance to grab an especially intriguing tome.

Of course, I have some books still residing in my freezer, stories that I long to read but may never get a chance to explore. I have books banished to the garage, books I dragged home much the way I used to bring home stray kittens. Someone ought to love these books. Someone ought to read the magical tales their covers shelter. Someone ought not to forget them or their authors, who labored long by pen or primitive little typewriter to bring these stories to life.

And then, now and again, I stumble across a book collector’s special trove, as I did last weekend. I had never heard of the BUDDY series by Howard R. Garis, but apparently there are 20 titles published between the 1920s and the end of WWII, with a 21st book that came out after the war. Buddy is a cheerful boy that experiences many enthusiastic adventures. Here is a sampling of the titles:

BUDDY books

I think these must be at a similar reading level to THE BOBBSEY TWINS series. Garis was also the author of such well-known children’s classics as UNCLE WIGGILY and THE CURLYTOPS.

I stumbled across the BUDDY books at an estate sale. They were being sold individually instead of as a set, so by the time I arrived and fell in love, six were already gone. The collector in me howls in frustration at the loss in value a broken set represents. The reader in me is delighted to have any of them.

Their dust covers and inside illustrations are charming, very much representative of an American era now gone. Notice how all the covers are identical except for the titles. Smart marketing for a small publishing house with an eye on the bottom line. Commission one cover painting and keep using it while also building brand recognition for the series.

I found one of the books particularly interesting. On the back of BUDDY AND THE VICTORY CLUB, copyrighted in 1943, is this statement from the publisher, Cupples and Leon Company:

Books have always been the priceless heritage of a free people. When a new volume has been added to our shelves, it simply means that democracy and all it stands for is still at work.

Take away our books, and we become slaves, unknown and unknowing.

They BURNED the books in that dark land of oppression and cast into the flames not only words of beauty and knowledge, but a symbol of liberty: Man’s right to read the books of his choice.

We must never let that happen here!

Buy War Bonds and Stamps now so that we and our children may continue to enjoy the blessings of freedom, now and forever.

So well expressed, and an important message to remember even today as America’s literacy rate slowly drops a little more each decade. Recent stories such as Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF remind us of how the Nazis sought to limit knowledge and suppress ideas through book burning. Ray Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451 conveys a similar warning in a futuristic scenario.

Last week, I was standing in the checkout line at Sam’s Club. A large dump at the end of the conveyer belt contained the most recent book in the DIARY OF A WIMPY KID series. A little boy of eight or ten years wanted that book so much he could barely stand it. I overheard him negotiating with his parents because the book cost $8 and he only had $6. They wouldn’t let him have the book. Something was mumbled about how he’d already chosen an item in the cart and that was that.

Now I’m sure the adults were trying to teach this kid economics, but when I see a boy this age–in the demographic most at risk for dropping out of reading–denied a book, I have a hard time not butting in. I can’t express how intensely I wanted to step forward and hand the kid the two dollars he wanted.

He trailed away, his head down in dejection. Five minutes later (this was a very slow-moving line), he came back with a new deal on the table. He offered to eliminate the bag of Cheetos that he’d evidently chosen earlier, and that would make up the difference in the cost of the book.

I was so impressed by this child. He wanted to read a book. He figured out a solution, a reasonable one, and he made a logical pitch for it. He was willing to sacrifice junk food for a BOOK.

Did he get it?

Nope. His parents rejected the deal and kept the Cheetos. Score a point for Team Ignorance & Stupidity! In a year or two, this boy won’t care anymore. His interest in reading will have waned and died from lack of support at home. He’ll be lost to video games, probably never to read again for the rest of his life. He’ll be lazy of mind, low of imagination, and ripe for believing biased media sound bytes.

Even if we don’t have Nazis burning books these days, another way to destroy the knowledge and freedom of thought that derive from reading is to trample the desire to read.

Granted, there’s nothing deep or profound about the WIMPY KID series. I doubt there’s much that’s deep or profound about the vintage BUDDY series either. But their value lies in that they’re fun and entertaining. And as you and I know, fun reading can lead to the willingness to tackle more challenging books and insightful ideas.


I also found myself admiring Mr. Garis for the dedication he put in BUDDY AND THE VICTORY CLUB:

“To the boys and girls of the United States of America who, by their hard and unselfish work in collecting scrap, including tin cans, helped the United Nations to Victory.”

He knew his audience, and he respected these young readers enough to acknowledge their effort toward winning the war. Because, after all, everyone matters no matter how small, how young, or how humble.

Meanwhile, I plan to tackle the volume dated 1929 first. They aren’t musty–hurray!


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Honoring the Old Lion

A few months ago, I was in a small antiques shop in Oklahoma City when I came across a faded, worn hardcover lying on a cluttered table. There was no dust jacket, no cover art whatsoever. The buckram had originally been blue; now it’s faded to a steely gray, and the spine is a brittle, sun-faded brown.

Because of my allergies, I forced myself years ago to give up used books. No collecting. No browsing through the musty aisle of tempting treasures. No rare or old editions. I live in the desert of no old books.

But now and then I pick up a volume to give it a look … as an individual crawling in the sand clutches a cup of water.

This ugly book had nothing attractive about it. However, centered on the cover were two words in white script: Professional Writing.

My breath caught. I pounced.

campbell 3


It was indeed a text on writing from Walter S. Campbell, founder of the professional writing program at the University of Oklahoma. A man whom I consider to be my literary great-grandfather. Campbell wrote numerous books on old west history and biography under the pen name Stanley Vestal. He taught fiction writing in OU’s English department during the 1930s and ’40s. This was the heyday of the American short story market. Campbell’s students were so successful at selling their work that trouble began brewing with other English faculty whose students were not selling. Whether the problem was sour grapes or simple jealousy, the rift grew so serious that in the 1950s, Campbell and his students walked out.

Where were they going to go?

The journalism school on campus was just getting started. Its director needed students, even if they weren’t interested in working on the fledgling newspaper. The school changed its name to Journalism and Mass Communication, and Campbell and his class settled in. It became an odd alliance that has somehow worked down through the years, with PW still focused on teaching the craft and methodologies of writing that have worked since Aristotle. Students are still selling their work, provided they work hard and get their manuscripts in the hands of editors. Students have included various novelists such as Tony Hillerman, Louis L’Amour, Carolyn Hart, Curtiss Ann Matlock, and Jim Butcher, to name only a few.

When I was a student in the program, I took “Writing the Short Story” in a classroom dedicated to honoring Campbell. It had a brass plate on the door, designating it as the “Stanley Vestal Memorial Classroom.” Inside, students sat at long, blond-wood tables. Large glass display cases at the back of the room held copies of Cambell’s books. His portrait hung on the wall, and it was painted in such a way that his eyes followed you around the room. Until I took the class, I’d never heard of my major program’s founder. But I learned about him and what he stood for and believed in when it came to writing.

He was followed in the program by a fiesty writer named Foster-Harris. Google the name. You’ll find his books on plotting still available. Foster is my literary great-uncle. His breakdown of story climax is one of the best I’ve encountered. Then came a teacher called Dwight Swain. Dwight is my literary grandfather. He’d retired from the classroom by the time I enrolled, but I was assigned his text on writing, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, and I read it until the binding split. If you met Dwight at a party, he’d always ask what you were working on, and if you confessed you were stuck, he could put his finger on the problem instantly.

One of his ablest pupils was a hard-headed Yankee named Jack Bickham. It took Dwight many patient coaching sessions before he finally hammered the principles of story craft into Jack’s stubborn head, but once Jack “got it,” his career took off like a rocket.

Jack shone best, however, in the classroom. His personality might be intimidating, but his teaching was phenomenal. His ability to explain the writing craft opened doors to me and explained mysteries that had kept me stymied as I attempted to write my first wobbly stories. Jack was my literary father.

But today’s blog is supposed to be more about Campbell than his successors. In the antiques shop, I picked up the battered old book and opened it. After hearing so much about his teaching, this was the first time I’d actually gotten my hands on his textbook.

It was dated 1937, and he’d autographed it to a student named Rosalie. Not only do I now have his book, mine to study and learn from, but I have his signature. In my imagination, I can conjure up a tall, distinguished man–a pipe in his teeth–scratching out a rapid little note with his fountain pen. How proud and excited Rosalie must have felt, standing there–perhaps after class–while her teacher signed her copy.


campbell 4

Last year, I went to a local estate sale and was digging around the bits and pieces remaining in the last hour of the sale when I turned and saw a large, framed, black-and-white photograph. I recognized him immediately–that wide brow, the strong jaw and tidily clipped mustache, a kind mouth, and the intelligent, deep-set eyes that look right at you. The photo was obviously what Campbell’s oil portrait had been painted from. I had seen that calm, wise countenance almost daily for years–first as a student and later when I began to teach in the program. I bought the photo for six dollars and carried it home with a thrill that hasn’t faded. Today, Campbell’s likeness hangs in my office, directly behind where I sit when I write my novels, where I’m writing this blog now.


campbell 2

It seems to remind me that good craftsmanship is always worth striving for, no matter how tired and discouraged I might sometimes become. It speaks to me of where I’ve come from, of the traditions that have shaped me, and of the training I’ve worked so hard to assimilate.

Yesterday, I found myself in that same small antiques shop I mentioned earlier. On the same table, I came across another battered hardcover book. Its blue buckram cover is a little fancier. There’s still no cover art, but the plain title has been outlined in gold. The cloth has been worn smooth from use and handling. The edges are worn white. There’s no author signature on the inside cover this time. The edition is 1946, almost ten years apart from my other copy. The pages are heavily underlined in pencil by its first, enthusiastic owner.

I see no other changes, no real differences from the 1937 edition. Why buy two copies of a musty old book, written by a man long gone?

Call me a fan. Call me grateful for his legacy.


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