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Reading the lost volumes

By Bill Felber

Part of me is in there with Erasmus, the 16th Century scholar said to have famously uttered, “When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” I do not have that kind of bibliotechish commitment, but you will forgive my pride in noting that the family collection is some place above 1,000 volumes.

We’ve been building that collection pretty steadily for the entirety of my adult life. My dad imbued in me an appreciation for books — he liked Erasmus, too. I’m known around town as a baseball guy, and books on that subject can be found in abundance within the collection. But they are hardly its sole or even majority aspects. I’ll grab on to pretty much anything I can get in the way of classics, histories, biographies, and on occasion I find it hard to pass up philosophy.

What you won’t find much of is what is generally characterized today as popular fiction. In fact, there was a decade or so around the turn of the millenium when I could accurately say that the newest work of fiction I had read was “Humboldt’s Gift.” Saul Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for that … in 1976. To this day, I’ve only read one book by Dan Brown, and none at all by Michael Crichton or John Grisham. In fact the only current author with whom I have a close familiarity is J.K. Rowling, and that is a byproduct of having a kid.

Other than actual living entities, the physical pride and joy of our home is a pair of bookcases. One is made of fine mahogany, hand-crafted from floor to ceiling the full length of a wall, partially cabineted, and I’ll put it up against most any in town. The second is made of glass and cabineted in mirrored glass. Perhaps I have a thing for bookcases because those are only two of seven in our house plus an eighth in my office. Most of the collection resides on one of those eight. Among them are a first edition (1839) of “Nicholas Nickelby” and a first edition (1938) of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

But that kind of literary depth means that inevitably something, somewhere will be overlooked. That’s a principal reason why, a few weeks ago, I dove into the shelves for the sole and express purpose of finding something to read that I had previously overlooked — preferably for decades. I landed at the short story collections of O’Henry.

William Sydney Porter — O’Henry was his pen name — is a largely forgotten figure today. But a century ago he ranked among the great writers of the age. I acquired a five-volume collection of his works about two decades ago from Bill Colvin, a predecessor in my current position and former boss — who was downsizing as he and his wife prepared to move into new and tidier accommodations. Bill knew I would take good care of the books, and I have. For the course of those two decades, they had occupied a prominent spot on one of the shelves of the mahogany bookcase.

What I had not done over the course of those two decades was opened any of them. Until a couple of weeks ago. Doing so, then reading each of the stories, renews in me a sense of concern that we are losing touch with much of our literary heritage.

O’Henry was a big deal as recently as a half century ago. I read “The Ransom of Red Chief” as part of my junior high curriculum. It’s a typical O’Henry short story featuring one of the ironic endings of which he was a master.

Most O’Henry stories conclude with a plot twist of a style you no longer see, but which made him one of the most recognizable literary figures of the first decade of the 20th century.

Like all writers, O’Henry drew his characters largely from the clay of his own life. That frequently made them tragic, for O’Henry’s life featured tragic elements. He did hard time in an Ohio penitentiary for embezzlement, writing most of his stories only after being released. Probably as a consequence, O’Henry often wrote about grifters, kidnappers and other ne’er-do-wells, and several of his heroes failed to survive the experience.

His characters also often spoke in the vernacular of the day, a vernacular sometimes viewed by modern society as racist, providing one more reason why his stories might over time have been relegated to the rear of our societal consciousness.

To the extent O’Henry is remembered at all, it is probably for “The Gift of the Magi,” one of his “plot twist” stories centering on a young couple’s efforts to buy Christmas gifts for one another.

I waited 20 years to read O’Henry, but I’m glad I finally did. Next up: The Waverley Novels.

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