Posted by: Janet | November 5, 2007

The Book Collector

The Book Collector – this is the title of a chapter that I wrote back in the mid-1990’s when I was reflecting on events in my life.  Here are some excerpts from what I wrote at that time:

                Browsing in the rather ramshackle book fair, casually perusing the miscellaneous assortment of books – beekeeping, history, political pamphlets, mountain climbing, fairy tales, “not much here,” she thought.  Armstrong Sperry – suddenly there as if by magic leaping up at her from the motley collection on the table.  There she was suddenly jolted back to her childhood – a favorite author from way back when.  What marvelous hours had been spent in the arms so to speak of Armstrong Sperry.  For he wrote spell-binding tales of adventure in the far away South Seas.  It was so unexpected to come across this book in Dublin -for upon reflection surely Armstrong Sperry was a New England American author writing for and about children of the East Coast of America.  Children for whom the South Pacific had a special allure.  An author writing in the 1930’s and 40’s for a childhood audience, inspired by the adventures of a way of life peculiar to a very small segment of New England society 100 years before.  The whalers setting out from the Massachusetts coastal town of New Bedford and the now romantic sparsely populated small islands of  Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard 30 miles at sea beyond the shores of Cape Cod.  These brave men pursuing a way of life which meant distancing themselves from their wives and children for long long voyages lasting years at a time.  Voyages around the world to the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean in pursuit of the leviathans of the deep – whales rich in oil needed to light the lamps in the tiny homes thousands and thousands of miles away.  The monstous struggle of men in tiny boats in pursuit of these semi-human mammals of the sea.  Oh how I loved Armstrong Sperry.  And the wood-cut illustrations in his books. 


                 For sentimental reasons I was sorely tempted to purchase that copy of  All Sail Set,  published in 1935.  I loved this book – the lure of the clipper ships.  I did not succumb to nostalgia on that occasion (but a few years later I was visiting Nantucket and I saw it reissued in a new edition.  I decided to buy it, even though it was brand new and not the copy I had seen in Dublin..  The copy I had seen at the book fair in Dublin had been priced at £6 and had been given as a present to someone in 1937.  It was a first edition with wonderful black and white woodcut type illustrations.   Much more provenance to that one!)

 The feel, the smell, the sense of marvelous anticipation of a new book – always a treasured present from an elderly aunt.  Auntie always chose a well recognised book – usually a Caldicott or a Newbury Award winner.  I remember the special gold label on the dustjacket.   Makeway for Ducklings was one I remember – a charming story of a duckling family who lived in the Public Gardens in Boston.  This book seems to be as popular today as it was over 50 years ago.  Then there was  Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, another book which Auntie gave me at an early age.  She also gave me subscriptions to a children’s literary magazine called the Jack and Jill.  Babar the Elephant was another early favorite.  

                Paddle to the Sea was the book we all read in 3rd grade with Miss Sawyer.  It was a beautifully illustrated large book about a carved canoe which was carried through the Great Lakes eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean.  I remember reading ahead and then getting tired of the slow pace of the class and wanting to move on to another book.

                The Bobbsey Twins books were very popular when I was a child but I did not care for them – there was something too sweety sweety about them for my taste.  And then there were the books which  I shared with my sisters – the Nancy Drew mystery stories which were passed on to me by my sister Nancy almost 10 years my senior.  And we shared the terror and suspense of those stories so vividly – I think those are still going strong today.  And the Hardy Boys.         

                As I grew older I loved to read books about submarines.  There were a few in the house which my brother had had and then I was constantly perusing the shelves of the small library at the head of our road.  And there I found many reading treasures.  Commander Ellsberg.  And I read books about polar explorers. 

                Two Under the Indian Sun – the associations with this title – first discovered and read in Nairobi Kenya in the mid-1960’s, read and loved but not saved.  Rediscovered in a summer fete book stall in Dundrum in the 1980’s – reread and really loved since that was just after having returned from living in Banladesh for 5 years.  And discovered again in hardback at a book fair in 1995 – a nice dustjacket and complete with photographs

                When I was little I spent a lot of time in the Benton Branch Library, either inside browsing the shelves or outside climbing the outer walls and peering in the windows, much to the consternation of the librarian Miss Cardigan, who was to beome  Mrs. Moran at the age of 50+.  It was at the Benton Branch library that my mother started working part-time after my father died.  She was not a trained librarian but she was soon urged to do some courses in library science at Simmons College.  She followed this advice and later became a full-time student to earn her master’s degree.

                I also used to spend a lot of time at the Payson Hall Book and Gift Shop – I used to spend so much time browsing that the proprietors would urge me to leave – also not to bring my dog with me when I came to the shop – my dog used to wait impatiently outside and would barge her way into the shop at any opportunity.  Not only was this an interesting book shop where I used to buy Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy books, but they also had jigsaw puzzles for rent and also an adult lending library.  Despite being ejected numerous times from the shop, I was still fond of it.  It is highly probable that my sisters and brother also had purchased their children’s books from the shop – earlier Nancy Drews, Judy Bolton, the Hardy Boys and Tarzan of the Apes to name but a few which we had on our shelves at home.  Our bookshelves at home were a constant source of entertainment for me – rich treasure there.  In addition to conventional sized reading books we also had a very large collection of “big little books”.  How I would love to have that collection now – real antiques and collectibles!  My heart gives a lurch whenever I encounter one of these long gone items at an antique fair.  These books featurerd pictures and text.  Many many authors were published in this format – Walt Disney characters, Dick Tracey, Tarzan, etc.  Another item of printed matter which was devoured by each member of the family was the Sunday comics – how my father used to laugh over the antics of the Katzenjammer Kids.      

                Now in later life I find myself a member of a Book Discussion Group, a friendly association of 7-8 booklovers.  We take it in turn to choose the “book of the month” and to lead the discussion, and separately to host the meeting.  Although it sometimes means I read books I do not like and feel a waste of time, I still enjoy the discussions, and sometimes even though I have not necessarily enjoyed the book it has forced me to read a book I would not otherwise have chosen and I have ended up being the richer for that.


to be continued



  1. I was picking a book for a grandniece today ( she will be 5 soon) and reread “Make Way for Ducklings.” A great story. Maybe she already has it. She lives far away so I can’t check. Right now, my bed is surrounded by boxes of books from my mother’s house, books I could not part with, but I have little storage space. I think I will divide them by age and parcel them out as my brothers’ kids get the right age to read them.

    You reminded me of our local library, built by Carnegie money and in a style repeated all across the country. Kids books on one side; adult ones on the other and the librarian Miss Rule in the middle. A nice woman. She did not restrict me to the kids’s side. We went weekly, with a laundry basket to bring back our choices. We were limited to 10 per person, and I usually took 10, browsed them and read some but not all each week.In the summers, there was always a book club with a goal. One year it was Swm the Mississippi. Each book a kid read moved his marker farther down the river. The goal was New Orleans. Some of us made it.

    Re big little books – I didn’t pay much attention to them, but we loved comic books, perhaps because we had to pay a fine if we brought them home. My mother thought they were bad literature. So, we rode our bikes 2 miles to the nearest drug store where we sat on the floor and read the comics for free until the durggist kicked us out.

  2. Thanks for the lovely description of fondness for my grandfather’s books!

    Just an aside, however: the illustrations he included in “All Sails Set” and “Call It Courage” were done in pen and ink, and were not “wood-cut illustrations,” despite the number of used-book dealers who describe them as such in their listings.

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