An Ossuary of Words

The other day Thing One looked in wonder at my bulging bookcases and asked me, “Mr. Al, how did you even read all those books?”

To which I responded, “One word at a time, kiddo. One word at a time.”

But while making pithy and sage comments about books is all well and good, for me the exchange was only one symptom of a significant problem: because of their turbulent background in life Thing 1 and Thing 2 are both decidedly behind the curve when it comes to reading. And because words have played such a vital role throughout my life I feel obliged to do everything I can in the short time I have with these kids to rectify that problem.

Part of that is making sure that they’re diligent in their studies. But just as important is helping them to understand that reading can be fun. Which, for a kid who can barely sound out his words, means showing him that books are pretty dang awesome.

So it was that I found myself digging through boxes of books I hadn’t seen in years. I’m talking about classic works of literature like, The Strange Thing that Happened to Allen Brewster, How to Eat Fried Worms, and Aliens Ate my Homework. And there at the bottom of the box I found a book I had almost forgotten about. Its cover was brown, though it’s difficult to tell what color it once was, and barely legible on a spine that was literally falling to pieces were the words Bolts – a Robot Dog.

When I saw that book, the memories all came flooding back. Bolts! How could I forgotten Bolts? I started reading it to the kids and they were entranced. Because, come on, its about a robot dog with literally razor sharp teeth and a Number Three Bark that can make grown men quiver like jelly. Also he’s telepathic and can talk to any animal he meets.

But like I said, my copy was almost falling apart. So I went on Amazon to see if I could procure a suitable replacement, something I wouldn’t have to worry about falling apart in my hands. Which is where I found this.

$48.50? Forty-eight fifty? For one measly book? And that’s when I realized the terrible truth. Bolts – A Robot Dog by Alexander Key never got reprinted. The copy I’ve had since childhood, the one I bought from the library’s damaged book sale, was the first and only edition of the book.

Of course I’ve heard of books like this. They’re part of that hulking glob of literary dark matter formed entirely from out-of-print backlist titles. But some part of me just assumed that they weren’t really important. That for some reason those books didn’t deserve to be reprinted. And perhaps from a financial standpoint they didn’t.

But knowing Bolts – A Robot Dog hadn’t merited enough attention to be reprinted made me sit up and take notice in a way I hadn’t before. Maybe Bolts was a comercial flop, or maybe it sold well enough, but not quite well enough to justify the cost of a reprint. But it made me sad to think that there are kids born today who will never have the opportunity to read this book.

And how many other books are there like this? How many titles languish in the backlist, fading away into distant memory, their few remaining copies falling to pieces at the bottom of a box in someone’s shed or sitting unread on some collector’s shelf? My guess is that their numbers are far larger than we would first imagine.

And the saddest part of this is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Scanners and OCR technology are commonplace in most of the civilized world, and many people would be willing to donate the small amount of time it would take to digitize these forgotten works of literature. In this age of ereaders they could find new generations of readers waiting to be enthralled by their words.

Unfortunately, thanks to the Mickey Mouse Protection Act these works of literature will not fall into the public domain for more than a hundred years after their initial copyrights. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for protecting intellectual property, but a hundred years?

Popular titles like To Kill a Mockingbird are reprinted so often the various editions pile up against each other on the bookstore shelves, while books like Bolts slowly rot into pieces, locked away in an ossuary of words, a tomb constructed in the name of their “protection”. And they are protected. Protected from ever being read. Protected from ever being loved.

I don’t purport to have all the answers. This post isn’t meant to be a tirade against copyright laws. Rather, it is a love letter to those all-but-forgotten words. They were all someone’s labor of love. Some writer poured out a piece of his soul onto paper, crafting words into something special. And in their time, these books stirred the hearts and souls of their readers in their own small way.

I can only hope that one day, some of them may be dusted off and brought back to life, that some day the light of day might once again shine into the ossuary of words. And that some day, Bolts’ terrifying Number Three Bark may sound again and thrill the heart of some boy taking his first halting steps into the wonderful world of books.

Addendum: some of Alexander Key’s other books have been made available by a dastardly group of information pirates to read and download here. When I have some free time (ha!) I may scan my copy of Bolts and throw my lot in with this band of miscreants and criminals by making it available to the world.


5 responses to “An Ossuary of Words

  1. Robin Hood was a hero, him and his “miscreants.” 😉

  2. Beautifully said…and oh so true.

  3. ”One word at a time”. Can I borrow this motto for National Novel Writing Month next week?!!! I promise I’ll quote you 🙂

  4. Pingback: Bottom of the Box Books | The Collaborative Writer

  5. Wow – what a blast from the past! I read “Bolts” a few dozen times as a child. The librarian kept saying, “Dear, don’t you want to read something else?” Something else? But… why, when there’s Bolts? Somewhere in a box of papers I still have a pencil sketch I’d made of Bolts. I don’t know what made me Google him tonight, but his name brought me to your post and the to the Amazon listing (Bolts is now listed at $94!). Anyway, thanks for raising an important issue about preserving literary work, while bringing back memories of a much-loved book from childhood that I never owned, but never forgot.

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