Thursday, May 10, 2007

Treasure in a Ten Cent Book

In 1959, my grandparents moved to Morongo Valley, California, a small desert community about twenty miles north of Palm Springs. I turned eleven that summer, and was already a voracious reader of the Hardy Boys and other series books.

For the next decade, my family drove out on a bi-monthly basis to spend the weekend with the elderly couple. My part of the visits continued until I went off to seminary in 1970. In the 1960s, often the grandparents took us to various places in the community that had become the biggest part of their world. On one occasion more than forty years ago, we went into a thrift shop. It had the predictable wares for sale—inexpensive clothing on wire hangers strung across makeshift racks, sun-colored glass vases and bottles, costume jewelry, ragged paperback novels, mismatched pieces of silverware. I eased up to a rickety card table that was groaning under a stack of hardback books. On top was a dark red, jacketless volume with the “Grosset & Dunlap” imprint on the bottom of the spine. These were the publishers of the Hardy Boys and other series books. The title, in attractive, old fashioned lettering, read, Don Sturdy on the Desert of Mystery. It was the first time I learned that there were series that had been discontinued, and I can still remember the feeling of wonder that washed over me.

The book was a library discard. Someone had obviously donated it to the local branch since it bore a stamp that read “Morongo Branch County Library”, but the library might have disdained entering it into their system since there were no signs of a library envelope in the back or marks of the Dewey Decimal System in white ink on the spine. On the blank front endpaper was scrawled a large —10 in pencil. I laid down a dime at the cash register and the volume became mine. I wouldn’t buy another used series book for a quarter of a century and therefore had no inkling that with that purchase I began a serious series book collection.

I still own that book. It seemed old then, with its cloth covering somewhat frayed. At the time I found it, it was about forty years old; I have now owned it as long as that. More than likely my heirs will have to decide what to do with it at some future time, because I will not part with it willingly. It’s also of interest because, of the hundreds of these books I have read in the twenty years I’ve been collecting them, it’s the only one in which a character identifies himself as an Episcopalian.

Later I found another copy of the book, this time in better condition and with a dust jacket. For the first time I was able to see the evocative cover artwork, showing a really old-fashioned car under an unusual saffron sky. The story is set in 1920s Algeria.

In addition to the joy of collecting and reading the old series books, there is the equal value of the number of relationships I have developed with other collectors. The people in this group range in age from 10 to 92, is spread across the country from Maine to California with one or two overseas, and include a devout Roman Catholic and an atheist, a monarchist and an anarchist, a blue collar worker and a professional man, a priest, a college student, and a few retired people, men and women, single and married, wealthy and poor, and people who live in big cities and in very rural areas.

Why do we search through used bookstores and other repositories of old books—and now online—to look eagerly for volumes long out of print, written for children in the era of the first seventy years of the twentieth century?

When we consider the past into which series books can take us, there are two categories to keep in mind: general history and one’s personal past. Series books present us with a slice of Americana as generous as a slice of a home-baked, hot-out-the-wood-burning-oven cherry pie a child could gobble back on the farm in the 1930s. These are not textbooks of history lessons; they are windows opened by a time machine. Looking through the window is not work or study; it is an adventure.

It is not significant that the slice of history is an idealized one; idealized it may be, but it is an idealized slice of a real period—that is, the idealization is itself a real part of the past into which we may enter vicariously. We may enter an age in which the Hardy Boys can enjoy a lunch and two desserts, and pay with a two-dollar bill (What Happened At Midnight, p. 138). Young people can go camping without having to take out numerous permits and pay exorbitant fees to government officials or win a lottery of applicants to get permission to enter a “restricted” area. Official bureaucracy is barely mentioned. The constabulary is presented as either a company of inept buffoons (as in the early Hardys) or as providing desperately-needed and eagerly-welcomed assistance (as in Ken Holt). It is a simpler, purer, slower age, and the idealism is like putting a polish on real silver.

In addition to enjoying the Americana, the reader of these books also can enter his or her own personal past, when the books were first bought or borrowed, and read. Rocco Musemeche is a correspondent of mine in Louisiana who, at age 92, dearly loves the books of his childhood: the Rover Boys, books by Leo Edwards and Percy Keese Fitzhugh, and others. It was a great joy to me to locate for him a book he’d been seeking for SIXTY YEARS and send it to him as a surprise. I never told him it cost me over a hundred dollars. I figured that’s only about a dollar sixty-five a year.

I, who was a child in the 1950s, remember the original text Hardy Boys (they were hideously “updated” beginning in 1959); the early Tom Swift, Juniors; the Rick Brants; and the Tom Corbetts. These books are reminiscent to us baby-boomers of real times that we personally experienced; collecting them is a way of reclaiming those days and bringing them into our present. And collecting books of that era which we did not know at the time even makes it possible for us retroactively to extend the borders of our childhood. We can have shelves full of time machines which we can use at will to enter another world which, at the same time, is our world.

In addition to the adventures, the nostalgia, and the winsome wholesomeness of the stories, there is compelling attraction to the ordinary pleasures of life of another era. When some of the stories were updated to attract a modern audience, it was almost always this aspect of the story that was omitted. Today’s offerings are severely deficient, for they have little place for simple fun and emphasize action and fast-paced excitement over atmosphere and setting. Some of the best times in the old series book world are when nothing momentous is happening. This is what adds real flavor to the stories. The preparation of meals and the picnics in the Hardy Boys make us invisible participants not just in their adventures but in their lives. We are pleased and entertained and moved when, at the end of The Tower Treasure, the menu of the celebratory feast is laid out for us, and the iced-over bay is stirringly, poetically described in the opening pages of The Mystery of Cabin Island.

It is the same when the reader imagines the warm water of Chesapeake Bay closing over him as Rick and Scotty dive in Rick Brant’s The Flying Stingaree, the kerosene lanterns in Capwell Wyckoff’s The Mystery of Gaither Cove, or how the boys fix up the old landlocked shipwreck in Tom Slade At Temple Camp. It is the ordinariness of the characters’ lives that makes the books about them a source of extraordinary pleasure today. In the best series books, there is a delight in everything ordinary, which makes the adventure, the mystery-to-be-solved, the puzzle-to-be-unraveled so enjoyable.

Apart from emotional or sentimental attachment, there are probably three categories by which a series book can be judged: writing, plot, and artwork (which would include internal illustrations, frontispieces, and covers). It must be admitted that many series books, and some entire series, are severely deficient in one or more of these categories. There are many examples of poor writing, abominable plotting, and bad artwork. Yet I have found that rarely do series book aficionados agree on which is which. Agreement is much more obtainable on what is good. Almost everyone acknowledges the consistent excellence in the Ken Holt and Rick Brant series. Other than that, frequently what one person disparages another will love.

But even in the books and series that usually fall to the mediocre level or below, there are elements of greatness. Sometimes a dismal plot will feature passages of surpassing beauty. Excellent, atmospheric artwork may adorn a poorly-written adventure.

All of these features can be evocative of many things beyond the artwork, writing, or plot. Even if a portion of a story is an unillustrated, poorly written passage in a forgettable plot, sometimes the image or event itself stands out with signal clarity. Times of classic boyhood play which contributed little or nothing to the plot but much to the atmosphere of the early Hardy Boys, take us back to the late 1920s and early 1930s; the “can-do” attitude of Rick Brant and Tom Swift, Jr. are clearly the products of the 1950s. These essential but almost indefinable elements of series books are independent of plot, writing, or artwork.

And nearly each series includes books and moments of notable quality, almost painfully joyful to read in their presentation. Among these would be the winter scenes of the Hardy Boys’ The Mystery of Cabin Island, the severely cold wind of the city canyons in Ken Holt’s The Mystery of the Grinning Tiger, the sparkling South Pacific in Rick Brant’s The Phantom Shark, pristine Alaska in Don Sturdy Lost in Glacier Bay, the desiccated red sand in Tom Corbett’s Stand By For Mars!, the coolness of the air inside the cave in contrast to the fierce dry heat of the southwest desert in Troy Nesbit’s The Diamond Cave Mystery, the clinging fog on the rocky coast of Maine in Hal Keen’s The Clue at Skeleton Rocks, the dry and clear vistas of Tom Quest’s The Secret of Thunder Mountain, the grandeur of The X Bar X Boys Lost in the Rockies, rowing across an Atlantic bay at midnight in Capwell Wyckoff’s The Sea Runners’ Cache, young Roger Baxter and his younger brother painting a porch in Stranger in the Inlet, Dig Allen moving through passages illuminated by fireflies in the city of the Kohoolies in Trappers of Venus, and Tom Swift and Bud Barclay’s exploration of the bottom of the sea in Tom Swift and His Jetmarine.

In addition to the piercingly beautiful word-crafting in these volumes, there are the values which are taught in the stories as the characters address the challenges which confront them. Through the stories we see many powerful values held up as sterling examples for the formation of youth, such as loyalty to friends, self-reliance, a love of adventure, passion for justice, courage, humor, honesty, respect for others (frequently, but sadly not consistently, including people of other cultures, races, and economic level), ingenuity, love of nature, the necessity of cooperation, and other values of universal appeal and approval.

Thomas Merton, writing in 1948 about the work his grandfather was doing as a prominent employee for Grosset & Dunlap in 1923, said, “Pop worked for Grosset and Dunlap, publishers who specialized in cheap reprints of popular novels, and in children’s books of an adventurous cast. They were the ones who gave the world Tom Swift and all his electrical contrivances, together with the Rover Boys and Jerry Todd and all the rest. And there were several big showrooms full of these books, where I could go and curl up in a leather armchair and read all day without being disturbed until Pop came along to take me down to Childs and eat chicken à la king” (Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948). Reading this account puts most collectors into a transport, imagining the summer this eight-year old boy spent in what most people (including the employees at Grosset & Dunlap) would have viewed as merely a place of business, but which we now understand to have been the beginning of an era which would change our lives.

On June 11 I’ll be giving a talk at my local library on this subject. I did so about six years ago and, other than my friends, only four people came. I don’t know if I’ll fare any better this time, but as I visit bookstores in the past year or so, proprietors have told me that interest in these old books is growing a little among the younger generation. We’ll see.


starmanseries said...

What a terrific post! This really reminds me of why I love collecting and reading series books. Thanks for taking the time to put this together!

Joi said...

I remember, when I was about 6 or 7, my sister and I would go over to aneighbor lady's house whenever my parents needed someone to wach us for an evening. I discovered that in a shelf that was built into the back of a bed (you had to pretty much crawl under the bed to get to it) was a whole row of lovely, dark red Happy Hollisters books. I read all of them that I could get my hands on; my favorite was the Happy Hollisters and the Clipper Ship mystery. Well, and the one where they go to the Yucatan Panninsula. I know, not the highest quality o literature, but I loved them.

What time is the program at the library?