By Hugh Gilmore
|What a portrait of bliss: an old man lying on a hillside -- Let the world go by, so content with his book is he!|
December 15, 2010
Let's Get Wild
You probably think that the life of a Books 'n' Reading columnist is a rather placid one, a life "of quiet desperation." But you'd be wrong. Occasionally we cut loose -- as for example, witness the fact that I've just finished reading "Alfred Owre, Dentistry's Militant Educator" (by Netta Wilson, 1937). Like most of my wilder experiences this one blindsided me.
Here's what happened. A few months ago, as part of my antiquarian book business, I bought several boxes of old books from an estate. In going through them at home, a book about touring the Irish countryside piqued my curiosity The book itself was nice enough, its bookplate was what really caught my eye.
Take a look at the picture I've provided above. What a portrait of bliss: an old man, lying on a hillside, the very picture of relaxed contentment as he holds his book. Let the world roll by! he seems to say. The dream of every dedicated reader.
This was no ordinary bookplate. I'd never seen it before. The owner of the book must have had it designed. Who was he, this "Alfred Owre"? How could I accidentally come to possess this bookplate without wanting to know more about its original owner?
Thank heavens for Google and the other search engines. I did no other work that day. Hour after hour slid quietly by as I tried to reach into the past and know this fellow, Alfred Owre (pronounced "Ow-er" or "oar," most of the time. I don't know which form he used).
An immigrant to America from Norway in the early 1880's, a boy burdened with being the brilliant oldest child in a destitute family, he'd been a disciplined, hard-working, honest person who'd lived out the American dream. Drawn to dentistry, he rose within the ranks of academia to become Dean of the schools of dentistry at the University of Minnesota, and later, at Columbia University. And he fought a life-long battle to convert dentistry, which did not require its practitioners to receive much scientific training in those days, into a branch of medical science.
Each Internet site I found teased me with additional bits of information. Owre was a compulsive, dedicated walker who walked across America. He built the world's greatest personal collection of cloisonné (I know: "be still my heart," but I am always fascinated by people of humble origins who acquire exquisite taste). And he was forced by hard times to sell his collection at auction for a fraction of its worth. His home library was extensive and incredibly broad in its contents. I found some photographs of it in the University of Minnesota's archives and downloaded one to my desktop to use as a screensaver.
In trying to reconstruct his library's contents, I found here and there a reference to a bookseller offering a book "ex-libris Alfred Owry." By noting the titles I gained a small sense of what his personal library had been like.
And here's what I imagine to have been the path whereby the book came into my hands. The Irish tour book was published in the 1820s and must have passed through several hands before Owre purchased it, either at auction or from a used book seller. He put his bookplate in it probably at some point after he'd earned enough to afford it, maybe around 1910. After his death in 1935, his library was sold at auction in New York. From the presence of auction notices in several of the books I'd bought, I'd guess that the owner of the estate I purchased this book from is the link between myself and Alfred.
Who'll be the next custodian?
In the meantime, I used the Philadelphia Free Library's inter-library loan system to borrow and read a copy of his only biography.
And, in case you want to know, my final verdict is that he was not at all like the fellow depicted on the bookplate (!) He was hard working, driven, as stubborn as he was idealistic, and probably not one to waste time lying on a hillside letting the rest of the world go by! In fact his drive to be in motion probably killed him. He insisted on hiking even after his final illness had laid him low.
The whole process, from spotting that bookplate to hounding his Google trail, downloading photos of his library, reading his biography, and writing this piece has been fun from start to middle. A hoot, as we say here in Chestnut Hill. Who dares say we don't know how to have fun out here on the peninsula?