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A box of good books

By Blanche S. Nightingale / December 1, 1986



MY father and his friend sold books for a publishing company, door-to-door, during their first college vacation. Owning a set of leather-bound books was something of a status symbol in the average American household of the early 1900s, so they did occasionally make a sale. They also trudged through several pairs of shoes. This experience forged a strong tie that bound them as friends for life. It also spurred the friend, over the years, to the seat of highest authority in the book company. There he was in a position to implement some of their wearily discussed improvements for book selling, with particular emphasis on less shoe leather. Though my father's business career carried him in a different direction, his door-to-door encounters never dampened his liking for books.

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The publishing company headquarters were in New York. In later years my father had a standing invitation to lunch with his friend, should he happen to be in that city on any Tuesday or Thursday. On those days the book company played host to a round-table luncheon for authors it was currently publishing, authors about to be published, and authors who hoped to be published. On the infrequent occasions that he was able to avail himself of this opportunity, my father was intrigued to find his table companions anyone from Sherwood Anderson to Ernest Hemingway.

One noon he arrived late for lunch. Introductions had already been made and he was just in time to slip into the last empty chair. The gentleman on his right, in cultured British accent, engaged him in conversation. He was interested to know my father's occupation, why he was in New York, where he lived. In the Midwest? Hm-m. Were there still Indians on the other side of Buffalo?

They had a lively, friendly discussion. Nothing said clued my father to the gentleman's identity. A British author, but which one? As they rose from the table my father, tongue-in-cheek, inquired, ``And what's your line?'' The gentleman laughed and said, ``Books, of course. Galsworthy is my name.'' They shook hands and parted. He was John Galsworthy of ``Forsyte Saga'' fame, a man of quiet charm and humor.

On these occasions my father's friend always inquired, however briefly, after my mother and then me. Being a bachelor, he paid little attention, as time went on, that our family had enlarged. My name was the one that stuck in his memory. The year I was 4, he sent me a box of books. They were some the company had published that year, supposedly appropriate to my age level. I received a box containing five or six volumes every year until I was 14. I loved those books. They became my friends and I read many of them over and over.

An aura of surprise, delight, and pleasure surrounds my recollection of the first box. Of its contents I remember only a colorful volume of fairy tales with golden-haired princesses and black-clad witches. Subsequent boxes expanded my horizon to England with ``Little Lord Fauntleroy,'' to Holland with ``Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates,'' to Germany with ``The Nuremburg Stove,'' and to the rarefied Alpine air of ``Heidi.'' I shed desolate tears over the plight of ``The Dog of Flanders'' and ``Black Beauty.'' How could the world be so cruel?

More than half a century later, I still have my red-bound, gold-chased copy of ``The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.'' The first time I heard the phrase ``cudg-el your brain,'' my thought leaped gleefully to the bridge in Sherwood Forest where Little John bested Robin Hood as they tested their manhood with stout cudgels of oak and blackthorn.

There was Sir Walter Scott, slightly out of place in my time sequence, for I was reading every word of ``Ivanhoe'' and ``Quentin Durward'' while my friends were still with ``The Adventures of Billy Whiskers.'' The publishing company must have been great on Sir Walter that year, for my bookshelf also contains matching volumes of ``Kenilworth'' and ``The Talisman.'' In addition there was a special, slim volume of ``The Lady of the Lake,'' which went naturally with the tales of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Years later, on my first trip to England, Tintagel was high on my list of ``must sees.''

In due course came Tennyson, Jane Austin, Kipling, Louisa May Alcott, to name but a few. The publishing house grew and prospered under the aegis of my father's friend. It became a leading supplier for boards of education and my boxes were like a course in English Lit. Since I could read the contents or not, as I chose, I devoured the lot -- very helpful when I eventually encountered many of them in my studies.

I never met my father's friend, but I hold him in deep affection. His generosity started me on that glory trail of shared ideas -- good books and good reading.