Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Magic of Digital Books

I was a voracious reader as a child.  Mostly I read young people's "classics" (Alcott, Wilder, Sydney, Porter, Montgomery, Lovelace, etc.), science fiction (Heinlein, Asimov, Clark, Norton), and British fantasy (Nesbit, Lewis, Arthur) but cared very little for the contemporary teen romances of the likes of Stoltz and Cleary. In other words, I was a fan of the past, the future and the imagined but not so much of contemporary reality. 

The San Mateo Public Library had rich resources for a child of my temperament. Every week we went to the public library and I came home with stacks of books, all of which would be completed and returned for a new stack the next week. The children's department in the old main library held full series many of the old books that I loved, such as all of Louisa May Alcott's young people's novels, and every one of Edith Nesbit's magical children's adventures. I could read not only The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, but the Peppers "Midway" and "Grown Up" and the books for each of the five children. 

Times changed, demands of library space increased, and slowly all those old books disappeared. Libraries would keep The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, but none of the subsequent books; they'd keep Alcott's Little Women and possibly Little Men, but not Jo's Boys, or An Old Fashioned Girl, or Eight Cousins, etc. Most of Nesbit's books disappeared entirely. 

Early in the age of the World Wide Web and I began looking for my childhood favorites, but most were out of print, and unavailable even as used copies from second-hand bookstores. Until the digital book revolution of recent years. With the spread of e-readers, across the country groups of volunteers have begun digging through their stashes of old children and young people's books and painstakingly transforming them into digital content. Amazon makes these public domain books available free of charge to Kindle readers. 

Suddenly I am able to revisit Lucy Fitch Perkins'  The Scotch [sic] Twins and American Twins of the Revolution, and Alice Turner Curtis' delightful A Little Maid of Massachusetts Colony and A Little Maid of Ticonderoga, as well as Edith Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle and The Story of the Treasure Seekers.  

The greatest delight, however, is that some older books that I searched in vain for in childhood, can be found digitally today. 

I loved movies as well as books as a child, and was an enormous fan of Haley Mills, making an effort to see all of her movies (not just those she did under the Disney franchise). One delightful concoction, released in the summer of 1963 was Summer Magic. I was 12 and I was enchanted. In the credits I saw that the movie was based on a book by Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin called Mother Carey's Chickens (most people are more likely familiar with her popular Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm).  I looked for Mother Carey's Chickens for years, no, for decades, unsuccessfully. It had been out of print since the 1930's. 

Now, thanks to the hard work of dedicated volunteers who found and transcribed this classic work, I am presently reading Mother Carey's Chickens before bed at night, and thoroughly enjoying the adventures of Nancy, Gilley, Peter, Kitty, Mother, and Julia in the yellow house in Beulah. 

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