Sunday, February 28, 2010

Collecting Dog Books: Wolves and Other Wild Canines

Learning about our ancestors -- where they came from, how they lived, what changed their lives, and how their experiences have influenced our lives -- makes us human, and may even help make us humane. Whether we learn at a grandparent's knee or through reading, research, travel, or chance, there's always more to know, and with that comes the endless opportunity to try to understand ourselves and why we do the good, the less good and worse, the crazy, and the incomprehensible.

Our domestic dogs also have ancestors. They've got extended family throughout the canine world, and every member of that family has a story to tell. Study the body language and pack behaviors of the wolf; do you recognize your dog's mannerisms and actions?

The range of literature is as wide and varied as the global territory of nondomestic canines, from the wolf to the coyote, jackal, dingo, fox, fennec, and wild dog.

One can focus on the natural history of each subspecies or thrill to first-person accounts of encounters in the wild. Folklore and fable have much to tell us, from Native America to the Indian subcontinent and most every other culture, too. For adults and youngsters, novelists around the world have imagined dogs’ wild cousins in renowned tales and lesser-known works that are well worth reading and collecting. Children’s literature, especially picture books, is an enchanting collectible choice. The Big Bad Wolf, who appears in so many retellings that one can make his story a mini-collection of its own, is just one classic character worthy of attention.

The more we learn about our dogs' origins and how their distant cousins have lived, and thrive or struggle to survive today, the less likely we are to forget that no matter how close to us dogs are, they are first and foremost their own distinct selves. They need dog life as well as life as members of our families. The more we know about the dog life they need, the better able we are to provide at least a humble portion of it. Think of it as the treat that isn’t eaten; serving it is our reward.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Collecting Dog Books: Of Dog Words and Dogless Dog Books

Now for something potentially irrelevant: it's snowing, I've enjoyed more coffee even more than usual, and I've just set aside my morning newspaper's crossword. Why abandon one of my daily pleasures? Because the clue was "follow relentlessly" and the answer is "dog" -- not Canis familiaris, but a dog of another breed altogether.

So as I sneak up on the coffee pot yet again, I grab my biggest, fattest, heaviest single-volume dictionary, open it to "dog" and admire all those words. Not for the first time do I savor the etymologies and first known appearances. There are times, I guess, when I want to play with any dog, including the word itself.

In my ceaseless search for books about dogs, or books in which dogs appear in any context and to any degree, I often discover dogless books whose titles include some form of the word dog. So wide is that word's application that one could fashion an intriguing library of books with no real (or mythical or theoretical or metaphorical or in any other way caninely defined) dogs within but dog words on every cover. Is the word dog a well-tested marketing tool, perhaps? Does it tell us so many things, intellectually and emotionally, that there's just no end to our attraction to it?

How much dog does it take to make a dog book? How pervasive are dog words, in literature, in our daily conversation? Does our affection for dogs inspire us to use more dog words, and do we ever think twice about some of the less than flattering usages? Not every lapdog or watchdog is a quadruped. In the doghouse doesn't mean sweet Fido is having a nap but where we don't want to find ourselves, asleep or awake. Aching dogs are not paws but human feet. If you're dogged by worry, you might not be worrying about your dog. When you're the object of dogged pursuit, chances are it's not a dog who's on your trail. And it follows relentlessly, as today's paper reminds me, that no book's pages should be turned down, folded and creased to form the lamentable dog-ear. Turned down also means rejected, and a dog-eared page might feel demeaned as well as damaged. Imagine it whimpering, and you'll always use a respectable, acid-free bookmark.

Now back again to my coffee, the tumbling snow, and today's puzzle in The New York Times. Will I find another doggone dog clue?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Collecting Dog Books: Authors and Titles

Basing a collection on a favorite author is a long-established approach. It's an option as obvious as it is satisfying, so what more can be said about it?

Perhaps an experience of mine will point to what can be done when an author or a book leads the way. In book love, we're not always in control, nor should we be. We may teach our dogs to heel, but aren't we grateful when they take over and lead us to some happy discovery?

It was 1969, just after Labor Day. On my midday break from work, I went for a walk up Fifth Avenue. My goal was Central Park (I probably planned to practice my squirrel vocalizations), but due to my inability to pass certain establishments when they're open (it's that wise dog tugging on the leash that binds us) and the pure chance of my walking north on the east side of the street, I found myself in the Doubleday Book Shop, the branch that closed in 1990, and, yes, I'm still conscious of its absence, and the bitter lack of its former book neighbors in Midtown.

What's still there, as vivid to me as a plaque on that much-remodeled address would be, is the memory. A certain shelf summoned me. A book slid into my hand. A title I had never heard of by an author unknown to me had selected me as if I were what was on offer.

I bought My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley. I continued on to the park, sat, opened the book, and may have been a little late getting back to the office. It was a reading coup de foudre.

The three of us -- Ackerley, Tulip, and me -- created an extended family of books, a clan to which I belonged by sheer affinity, because something new developed in my book life. Having that one copy of My Dog Tulip was not enough. I loved the book beyond its characters, place, and story. Good as it was, and pleasing as the attractively designed Poseidon edition still is (it remains in what my bookseller's soul would call very good condition), it was not enough, but inadequate in an inspiring way.

First, I wanted a copy of My Dog Tulip in every edition in which it had appeared, and would be issued in future. Many Tulips make a fine bouquet, and these never wilt.

I discovered We Think the World of You, Ackerley's fictionalized version of the story. I had to know more about the author, too, and over the years collected everything he wrote, and everything written about him. I'm still looking for more.

If you collect based on what an author has to say about dogs, why not learn more about the author's life? Biographies, memoirs, correspondence, book reviews, and published interviews are just a few of your potential sources.

And don't assume that a book you love is all there is to the story. Has it been illustrated by a variety of artists over its publishing life? Are there sequels, prequels, annotated editions, parodies, comics, or other versions you might enjoy?

Eric Knight's Lassie Come-Home, Ouida's A Dog of Flanders, and Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders are among the classics that can be found in numerous editions and formats.

What book means to you what Tulip means to me?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Collecting Dog Books: Legacies

There are books you inherit, and books you pass along. Just as time parts us from our dogs but never from their love, books as legacies express our love for dogs and each other.

You may have no influence over the choice of books someone leaves you, but you can at least provide for them (do they need cleaning or repair, and if they're not to your taste, where will they be appreciated?). Or you may make some discoveries (what might you learn from someone else's preferred reading, especially if there are revealing annotations?). You might think of these books as homeless dogs: some you foster until they're permanently rehomed, others never leave your side and you're forever thankful that they came your way.

Have you provided for your own collection's future? Do you have a record of the titles that comprise your collection, with notes on provenance and other pertinent factors? Whether they’re destined for charity, an institution that will house them for research, or loved ones who will treasure them, your books deserve a future, so ask yourself if they need some care. When did you last give them a good dusting?

Starting a collection for someone else is an especially happy task. It may be the top twelve fiction titles on the German shepherd for someone who admires the breed but lacks your knack for finding good reads. It might be the foundation of a lifetime’s love of books and dogs for that grandchild who’s on the way, ranging from the stories you remember from childhood to some choice collectibles you inherited from your grandparents or lucked into at last week’s yard sale. Keep notes, to pass along with the books, on why you chose them and what they meant to you.

Above all, book legacies remind us that books are worth sparing from the printed volume’s equivalent of the dog pound that is not a no-kill shelter.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Collecting Dog Books: Time and Place

In the immense where and when of dogs, in fact and fiction, you may find the collecting niche for which you've long been looking. It might be a specialty that complements an existing interest or takes you in a whole new direction. Time and place give you as broad or narrow a scope as you prefer, limited only by what has been published within your niche. It's another trip, with a dog at your side, and here are a few of the paths you might follow.

For the truly long ago, consider the canine in archeology or the literature of ancient civilizations. Two worthy examples: the Greek Arrian (who wrote on his contemporary, Epictetus, and Alexander the Great) and the Athenian Xenophon (historian and general, among other attainments) are each credited with works entitled Cynegeticus. To read these authors for their descriptions of hounds, for example, is to understand why those dogs were believed to be the creation of Apollo and Artemis.

Perhaps you're a great fan of the novels of Jane Austen. Investigate dog literature published in the British Isles during her lifetime. Imagine reading these books not only for your own pleasure, but also from the point of view of your favorite Austen character.

Add a few decades to your search and focus on the Victorian era. From classics on dog "breaking" (as training was known in those days) to entertaining fiction to Queen Victoria's diaries with mentions of four-footed members of the royal household, you'll find some highly collectible volumes, attractive bindings, fine illustrations, and a perspective on dogs and their place in society, from the shepherd's croft to the cross-country hunt to the manners of the drawing room, that beg for our attentive reading.

Interested in arctic exploration? This vast terrain encompasses action, accomplishment, and all too often agony. On your explorations in this field you'll find memorable dogs in adventure stories, biography, first-person accounts, and scientific reports.

Remember that books whose primary subject matter barely touches on your topic, but that list published or other sources, may point you toward important discoveries. Peruse bibliographies. A good bibliography is one good reason to buy a book; it, too, might qualify for status as a canine collecting niche.