One of my passions is collecting antique books. Alas I can’t afford literary classics such as Great Expectations or Moby Dick, two of my all time favorite novels. However, I can afford obscure books, forgotten books. I can find for a reasonable price books that have been buried deep beneath the sand and sediment of history, forgotten in graves of obscurity, tombs to these mainly to completely forgotten authors. For many of these books, if not obscure, are dead like their writers. They are not privy to the glory of the classics. Unlike books such as The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, or Hunchback of Notre Dame, which have all drunk from a source of ink gushing out of a rejuvenating literary Fountain of Youth, these forgotten books have failed to obtain that state of immortality. Besides, apart from not being able to afford classics, maybe that’s why I love to collect obscure, antique books. It’s a way to keep these deceased and forgotten authors alive, or to at least resurrect them from their graves. The first time I found an antique book I was hooked. I had found it at a thrift shop at the human society I used to work at. The book was a religious devotional from the 1870s.
One of my favorite books in my collections of antiques is a 1910 children’s novel entitled Star People by Katharine Fay Dewey. Complete with delightful and whimsical illustrations, it tells charming stories of personified constellations in a fairy tale setting. The stars are gods and goddesses, Draco is an actual dragon, comets are more like mischievous sprites, and the Sun is a King who gets the better of Cancer, an actual crab.
Another gold nugget, I found at a used bookstore in LA was a novel by Lytton Bulwere. The 20th and 21st century haven’t been kind on Bulwere. Bulwere had a tendency to write long winded sentences or what is commonly known as purple prose, language being flowery for the sake of being flowery. Nowadays there are writing contests that skewer his writing in which writers compose the most ostentatious prose possible. But back in his time, Bulwere was a successful author, loved by many readers. Aside from the infamous opening line “it was a dark and stormy night” to one of his novels, he coined such beloved phrases as “Pursuit of the almighty dollar,” and “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Regardless of what readers think of his writing now, I found a good story in The Disowned about angst, rage, and finding oneself.
The works of Sir Walter Scott are also interesting. The three books I ordered on Ebay are part of the Waverly novels. The editions I have were printed in the early 1830s. Out of the three I own, I have so far only read The Bride of Lammermoor, but I enjoyed it. It’s a dark and gloomy gothic historical novel, taking place in a decrepit castle upon the Scottish highlands. Intense emotions, doomed loved, and dreary omens and prophecies are all part and parcel of this book showcasing the worst of human nature. Sir Walter Scott’s writing is intriguing enough that I am anxious to read the other two novels I have of his, Anne of Geierstein and The Fortunes of Nigel.
In terms of antique books and gothic novels, my favorite is a mid 19th century book I have by Frederick Marryat, The Phantom Ship, a story about a young seaman who is trying to rescue his cursed father from sailing the seas for eternity for his sin of murder. It’s a classic flying Dutchman tale. The story is darker than the deepest depths of the sea and more crushing than the heavy waters. It sweeps away the reader into a tide of sorrow, dealing with love and loss.
But my excitement of obtaining 19th century and early 20th century books was nothing compared to when I was able to procure two books of satire from 1720 by Thomas Brown. Complete with beautiful engravings, I was more excited than when I got a pay raise at work. For when it came in the mail, I held within my hands two antiques that predated The Declaration of Independence or the formation of America as a country. These were books that could have been owned by the British upper class wearing powered wigs, and passed down to farmers upon the plains in America. Who knows the history of who read these books!
Sometimes I ask myself if these books will ever be successful or rediscovered? I like to think that I will discover the next Moby Dick. After all, Melville’s classic novel about the white whale and Captain Ahab’s quest for vengeance upon it wasn’t always a classic. As hard as it is to believe, this book, which has been compared to a Shakespearean play, was a commercial failure when it was first published. It wasn’t years until after Melville died that the book was rediscovered to critical acclaim. Other novelists who were once successful, such as both the aforementioned Mr. Thomas Brown and Lytton Bulwere, have since fallen into a gaping deep, dark pit of obscurity, in which few travelers dare venture into. The shadows of classic authors have engulfed many a forgotten author, if such obscure authors had never received the due respect that they deserved to begin with. After all, why explore the trail of words into the forgotten forest of misfit literature when one can just read the next bestseller in comfort?
While I love to read forgotten literature, it’s not to say that all of them are diamonds shining brilliantly. Many forgotten books or books that weren’t popular to begin with are nothing more than failed creations that could never live up to the potential their creators had in mind. However, it’s possible to discover some gems buried among the grains of dirt, including what could be the next Moby Dick or the next Great Expectations.
Often I wonder how I will fare as an author. Will the spotlight shine on me, only for that light to dim and my name to be forgotten in the fog of time? Or will I be immortal, my writing living in the hearts of many, spanning throughout all generations and centuries? Or like Melville will I die in obscurity, my writing to be discovered in some old thrift store or used bookstore, much like I found that 19th century religious devotional book in a thrift store? I guess I will never know. Either way, I look up at stars shining brightly in the night sky. Many of those stars are dead, but in some strange paradox they live on, their light finally reaching us. I hope that when I’m dead I can still be a star, my light shining brightly from the books I’ve written.
(C) Jonathan Scott Griffin