Because I love both the writing of Henry David Thoreau and the art of N.C. Wyeth, I was delighted to find an old copy of Thoreau’s Men of Concord (1936), with pictures by Wyeth, a book filled with fascinating people, giving me glimpses into the lives of men and women I was never otherwise going to meet, and a time I was never going to live in. Some of Thoreau’s brief stories just stopped me cold, made me read again, and a third time, like this one:
“October 1, 1851. 5 p.m. — Just put a fugitive slave, who has taken the name of Henry Williams, into the cars for Canada. He escaped from Stafford County, Virginia, to Boston last October; has been in Shadrach’s place at the Cornhill Coffee-House; had been corresponding through an agent with his master, who is his father, about buying himself, his master asking $600, but he having been able to raise only $500. Heard that there were writs out for two Williamses, fugitives, and was informed by his fellow-servants and employer that Augerhole Burns and others of the police had called for him when he was out.
“Accordingly fled to Concord last night on foot, bringing a letter to our family from Mr. Lovejoy of Cambridge… He lodged with us, and waited in the house till funds were collected with which to forward him. Intended to dispatch him at noon through to Burlington, but when I went to buy his ticket, saw one at the depot who looked and behaved so much like a Boston policeman that I did not venture that time.”
There was so much in this: A man seeking freedom, being forced to haggle over $100 with his owner, who is also his biological father. A slave-hunting policeman named Augerhole Burns. Thoreau’s family quickly collecting money from sympathizers for the railroad ticket. Thoreau spotting an undercover officer at the station, and waiting for the next train headed north.
Although not every page of Men of Concord contains a thriller, every page does have a character, but when I got to page 57, I discovered that 58 & 59 had never been cut apart. This book, published in 1936, has never before been read. Its cover has some dings; the binding is faded by the sun, the paper is yellowing, but in more than 70 years, no one actually read it. Which brought to my mind, as I am sure it already has to yours, Ranganathan’s third law of library science, “Every book its reader.” I’ve had to reach for my letter opener again as I make my way through Thoreau’s stories; I feel like an explorer, going where no reader has gone before, and I am very happy that his book at last has its reader. May I not be the last.
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Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan (1892-1972) was the father of library science in India,respected by librarians all over the world, including Antje Lemke, one of my professors at the Syracuse University School of Library Science, who first introduced me to the man’s work and thought. His justly famous five laws are:
1. Books are for use.
2. Every reader his [or her] book.
3. Every book its reader.
4. Save the time of the User.
5. The library is a growing organism
So hip, he even had his own postage stamp.