A love letter to 'orphan books' – the works that time forgot

The simple, cold truth is that thousands – perhaps millions – of books languish in libraries and bookstores for years, unopened, ungrasped, unloved.

'Down from Troy' is Richard Selzer’s sublime 1992 memoir of his Depression-era childhood and its influence on his later medical career – one of many wonderful books this reader has rescued from oblivion.

You see them in the back pages of the newspaper and on animal welfare websites serving your town or city. I’m talking about those snapshots of orphaned dogs and cats – all perfectly adorable and just needing one attentive soul to appreciate their value.

But if you’re an avid reader – and if you’re scanning “Chapter & Verse” right now, then no doubt you are – then you might have noticed that the literary world has its orphans, too.

The simple, cold truth is that thousands – perhaps millions – of books languish in libraries and bookstores for years, unopened, ungrasped, unloved.

Or so I’ve been reminded this winter while reading “Down from Troy,” Richard Selzer’s sublime 1992 memoir of his Depression-era childhood and its influence on his later medical career.

Although 2014 is still young, “Down from Troy” seems destined to rank among the best books I’ll read this year. Selzer writes like a poet, and his prose proves as precise as the scalpel he once wielded in the operating room.

It’s the kind of memoir everyone should read, but that no one has – at least not lately, in the public library down the street from my Baton Rouge home. I snatched it from a discard table and bought it from the library for a dime just before Christmas. The staff was selling it as a surplus item because demand for Selzer’s book was so low.

Just think of it: a good book so forgotten that people weren’t even willing to read it for free. The heart breaks at the thought of such neglect.

Through a similar library fire sale, I’ve gotten copies of Bob Greene’s “Be True to Your School,” the funny, tender diary of his high school experiences in 1964, as well as “Old Songs in a New Café,” a sterling collection of essays by Robert James Waller.

At a going-out-business sale for a local bookstore, I bought a copy of James Boswell’s “Life of Johnson.” The owner quickly discovered, through an identifying decal, that the volume had been part of the store’s stock for 20 years.

Two decades, in other words, in which a lonely book had waited for someone to take it home.

What’s our obligation to orphan books?

Author W.D. Wetherell addresses the question in “The Writing on the Wall,” his haunting 2012 novel about a young woman who speaks to us from the dawn of the 20th century. Wetherell’s protagonist, Beth, is a budding bibliophile who educates herself, almost entirely, on library volumes that everyone else has passed over.

Here, Beth describes her reading habits:

"Helen Hunt Jackson’s 'Ramona' I read again and again. Elizabeth Barret Browning I read because we shared first names, then because I loved her books more than anyone’s.... None of the books I read had been checked out in years. It was as if the books were deliberately left in the library to rot while everyone went off to the moving pictures and it was only me in the world who still cared for them. Sometimes when I took them off the shelves I imagined them sighing in happiness and relief, finding someone whose fingers and eyes would make them live."

But for every orphan book that finds a good home, scores of others rest on the shelf, forgotten. A reader’s job, in this year and any other year, is to rescue more of them from oblivion.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds; John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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