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Literary Classics #2
Books Alive & Bookman's Holiday
Vincent Starrett

Volume 21. in The Vincent Starrett Memorial Library Series

Mention the word "bookman" and what comes immediately to mind is Vincent Starrett, the most notable bookman of his day in North America. Born in Toronto, based in Chicago, he contributed wonderfully readable essays on books and bookmen to newspapers and magazines. Here are the complete texts of his two best-known volumes: Books Alive (1940) and Bookman's Holiday (1942).

Books Alive

Vincent Starrett fast learned the odor of books in the shop of his grandfather, John Young, a famous Canadian publisher, and bookseller in Toronto. However his family brought him to Chicago, where he was educated and began his newspaper career on the old Chicago Inter-Ocean. For ten years he was a member of the staff of the Chicago Daily News. This was the period when Chicago looked upon itself as the Athens of America, and certainly the Daily News went a long way to make the claim good, numbering on its active working-staff at the time Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht, Keith Preston, Henry Justin Smith, Harry Hansen, Robert Casey, Junius Wood, Wallace Smith, Charles H. Dennison, etc.

After Collier's had accepted Starrett ‘s first detective story, he gave up his newspaper job, and has been writing steadily ever since. His first production in book form was a monograph on Arthur Machen, the Welsh novelist, which introduced that strange genius to America and made Starrett a reputation as a critic and discoverer. His first novel, Seaports in the Moon, was quickly followed by a half dozen successful mystery stories, several of which were reproduced in motion pictures.

Mr. Starrett is widely known as a bibliophile and is the author of the standard bibliographies of Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce. One of his best-known books, Penny Wise and Book Foolish, 1929, celebrates the amenities of book-collecting and sets forth his own adventures in that field. He has also edited the uncollected work of such writers as Robert Louis Stevenson, Stephen Crane, George Gissing, Arthur Machen and Mark Twain.

Possibly his greatest enthusiasm has been the lore of Sherlock Holmes. After bringing together the world's finest collection of Holmes first editions and Holmesiana, he wrote and published (1933) a classic volume on the subject, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which gave him an international reputation. He is one of the founders (with Christopher Morley) of the Baker Street Irregulars, an informal society of Holmes enthusiasts (recently he edited their yearbook, 221-B, Studies in Sherlock Holmes), and is a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.

He has traveled extensively and a two-year residence in China gave him material for at least one mystery novel and a series of monographs on curious aspects of Oriental life and character. Bookman's Holiday
The Private Satisfactions of an Incurable Collector

The author of the well-loved Books Alive here tells of his travels and adventures in a world of print. Mr. Starrett is widely known as a collector and as a writer on bookish subjects. The son of a bookseller, he has spent his life close to bookshops and in them he has found his most exciting adventures. This book recounts some of his discoveries and private satisfactions, making book collecting and reading a fascinating adventure available alike to the poor man as well as the well-to-do.

Here then, are chapters as varied as a learned discussion of Chinese detective stories; a remarkable piece of original research on the actual island from which the famous Stevenson vers "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest" drew its inspiration and its name, and an investigation into the literary and factual background of eunuchs, including an interview with a few of the remaining examples of an old Chinese custom. No book by Mr. Starrett would be complete without something on Sherlock Holmes. The chapter is called "The Singular Adventures of Martha Hudson," who, it will be remembered, was the landlady of Holmes and Dr Watson at 221-B Baker Street. There is one item of fiction — "Folio Old Calf," with the subtitle "A Fairy Tale for Booksellers and Collectors." Of this the author says, "It is not an impertinence in the volume; it is, indeed, the most bookish of all the pieces, and my one ewe lamb of a tale of bibliophily." The book ends with Mr, Starrett's eloquent, "Persons from Porlock," which has been reprinted privately before and which has drawn extravagant praise from Christopher Morley and others who have suffered from interruptions.

Some of the chapters in this book have appeared in magazines as widely separated in appeal as The Saturday Evening Post and The Colophon. Books Alive
Vincent Starrett

Dedicating this mellow and charming book to "My Friends, the Booksellers of America," Vincent Starrett says in his foreword: "This is not a history of literature; it is a book of gossip, a profane chronicle of literary endeavor and literary misdemeanor.

"Books Alive has only one purpose, and that is to help make literature alive and interesting.... One good anecdote is proverbially better than a volume of ingenious analysis; so here are anecdotes.... Not all of them are flattering to their subjects, in general, the best anecdotes are not, don't you think?"

In the chapter on authors who have had prison records, he deals with the famous ones in a time long past, including that perennial undercover best seller Fanny Hill, and brings the tale down to O. Henry with the story of Porter's tragic incarceration.

Literary theft comes in for a thorough treatment of stolen stories, old and new. The famous charge of plagiarism brought by Christopher Morley against the late O.O. McIntyre is thoroughly aired in a sprightly manner. Perhaps one of the most intriguing chapters for the average reader is Mr. Starrett's treatment of the romans clef in which he audaciously spills some beans not known to the world at large. The greatly discussed controversies over Cakes and Ale and the follow-up book, Gin and Bitters, are brought together with all their tantalizing ramifications.

The book is crowded full and brimming over with interest and amusement. Through the skill of the author, these bookish subjects become as piquant and as fascinating to the reader as they have been throughout his life to this master literary detective.

Hard Cover with Dustjacket, 395 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55246-126-6    $40.00

The Other Volumes in The Vincent Starrett Memorial Library