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L.L.L. Blog

I ended the previous blog with a teaser: “Hint: they were small, leather-covered, with a distinctive and not-unpleasant odor, and they did a lot to start my intellectual life off in a good direction. And their initials were L.L.L.” Of course I have no idea how many of you readers guessed what they were--fairly few, I would suppose, because they are scarcely remembered today, except by book-dealers and book-collectors. But try Googling them and you’ll find lots of entries. They are:

The Little Leather Library. Here is an image of one of them (Fig. 1).

I awoke yesterday morning thinking about them--or, rather, remembering holding one of them and reading from it. And remembering its feel, and its modest look with green cover and cheap yellowing paper, and its “distinctive and not-unpleasant odor.” And where was I, while holding and reading it? Up in the crotch of a tree out behind the house I was living in, on the eastern edge of the Mendocino coastal town of Fort Bragg (then population 3,500), where I spent most of my pre-teen years. The house was on a plot of twelve-and-a-half acres, with forest covering much of it, the part away from the road. I lived with the family of Charles Blackledge, known as Blackie; he was an insurance salesman, and had his office in a separate small building just outside the house. And in the small ante-room of that office, intended for clients who came to see him to sit waiting, were bookshelves, mostly lined with books of no interest to me. But on one of the shelves was a box, or a case of some kind, with the green backs showing of a collection of Little Leather Library books. Each was about 3” wide and about 4-1/2” inches high--easy to hold in one’s hand, or carry into a tree. And I would take them out, one after another, and go off to read them--at least, the ones that seemed to me worth reading, and accessible to an already overly-literate young person. And a favorite place for reading these and other books was in the comfortable crotch of a large tree--some kind of oak? (I didn’t learn the names of trees, then or later.) It was located at the edge of the clear land, above a small stream (which provided soft background sound, along with the wind), only a few hundred yards from the house, and it was a favorite place of mine--I would almost say that more of my early literary and intellectual development happened there than at school. (The Fort Bragg Public Schools didn’t expect much of their students, or offer them much--until my sixth grade year, when three young teachers arrived from the Bay Area. But that’s another story. Back to L.L.L.)


The cheap edition that Blackie had was published in 1920-24, and was mainly, according to one account, the plan of Harry Scherman, who (bless him) evidently believed in making cheap editions of the classics available to ordinary people. They appeared first in a deluxe form, with red covers made of real leather (see Fig. 2) and were sold by mail and at Woolworth’s stores; later the low-cost sets were published in greater numbers, with green, artificial-leather covers and cheaper paper, and were sold by mail-order, advertised in popular magazines etc.--a sample copy might even be found in a cereal box. (One chose cereals in those days partly for the minor treasures included inside.) Descriptions of the L.L.L. books on the web see them as parts of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and it’s true that they were well-designed and widely accessible. (See Fig. 3, a group of them.)

What were their contents? Some sets included as many as 101 volumes; Blackie’s was probably (from memory) about fifty or so. One 35-volume set advertised on the web had these titles:

"Words of Jesus", " Fifty Best Poems of America", "Poems" by Robert Burns, "The Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Inferno/The Divine Comedy" by Dante, "Short Stories" by Rene de Maupassant, "Confessions of an Opium Eater" by Thomas de Quincy, "Christmas Carol" by Dickens, "Sherlock Holmes" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "Comtesse de Saint-Geran" by Alexander Dumas, "Essays" and "Uses of Great Men" by Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Man Without a Country" by Edward Everett Hale, "Ghosts" by Henrik Ibsen, "At the End of the Passage", "City of Dreadful Night", "Mark of the Beast", "Mulvaney Stories", "The Finest Story in the World", "Vampires and Other Verses", "Without Benefit of Clergy", all by Rudyard Kipling, " Hiawatha" by Henry W. Longfellow, "Lays of Ancient Rome" by Thomas B. Macaulay, "Irish Melodies"by Sir Thomas Moore, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Raven and Other Poems" by Edgar Allen Poe, "Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor" by Shakespeare, "Enoch Arden" and " Idylls of the King" by Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Friendship and Other Essays" by Henry D. Thoreau, "The Bear Hunt, Etc." by Leo Tolstoy, "Memories of President Lincoln" by Walt Whitman, "Ballad of Reading Gaol" and "Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde.

Imagine, then, being about ten years old, sitting up in the crotch of a tree, and reading one of these--now you understand why the memory of them remains so intense. Imagine discovering, up there, the pleasures of Shakespeare, or Poe, or Kipling. The book shown in Fig.  2 included two Sherlock Holmes stories, and must have been my introduction to those; the one in Fig. 1, in its cheaper edition, may well have helped to start me on reading poetry, and  also on my lifelong fascination with the King Arthur legends, containing as it did two of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.

(If you are wondering how to pronounce that seldom-used word: no, it isn’t like “idle,” as you might suppose from “idyllic.” For the right pronunciation, remember the quatrain by the American humorist Dorothy Parker, who, annoyed by Alfred Lord T.’s excessive genuflections to the Queen, to whose late consort Prince Albert the Idylls were dedicated in a long sanctimonious verse, wrote this--I quote from memory):

“If God should send me any son

I hope he’s not like Tennyson--

I’d rather have him play the fiddle

Than bow and scrape and speak an idyll.”

Also from memory, here she is on the Romantic Poets:

“Byron and Shelley and Keats

Were a trio of lyrical treats--

The forehead of Shelley was covered with curls,

And Keats never was the descendant of earls,

And Byron went out with innumerable girls,

But that didn’t affect the poetical feats

Of Byron and Shelley

Of Byron and Shelley

Of Byron and Shelley and Keats.”

Now I have wandered far off my subject, as my aged mind tends to do, and it’s time to close. I hope I have aroused memories of L.L.L. readings in some of you, especially oldsters like myself, and stimulated interest in others who will watch for these small treasures in old bookstores. No way can I convey their feel and their “distinctive and not-unpleasant odor” in writing: you have to find one and hold it and smell it. And with that well-meant advice I conclude this blog.

James Cahill, July 6, 2012

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