Friday, July 06, 2018

Rapture of the Rainbow: L. Frank Baum Revisited

Various friends have been urging me to write for this blog a little more often, that they miss me when I go away. I don't mean to be neglectful; I've been busy with audio commentaries. Would you believe I've now recorded 84 commentaries since 1999, and that approximately 36% of them were recorded in this year? That's right, this year - the one that's only slightly more than half over.

But one way that I might find my way back into blogging is by not worrying so much about what to write about, and being definitive about the things I do write. Just tell you about some of the things that are on my radar, that I think are very cool. And here's one.

My wife Donna has been an OZ book collector since she was a little girl. When I married her, I had no idea there was an OZ book series and that many books were added to the series after the passing of series originator, L. Frank Baum. When she was a kid in grade school, a teacher read to her class from Baum's THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ but somehow failed to complete the reading, which left her wondering how the story ended. Then, some time later, she attended a yard sale and found a copy of the book for sale. I was also quite taken with the illustrations in these books, by John R. Neill, and it became one of the ways I demonstrated my love to always be on the lookout for OZ goodies to bolster her collection. Whenever I pass by the shelf that holds these books, I am filled with the romance of antique books and book-making, and since the great majority of them were used, it's an extra treat to page through them and see where their original owners wrote their names and addresses on the "The Book Belongs To..." page and where some of them with artistic inclinations took watercolors to the black-and-white illustrations. At some point, the OZ books became a Christmas tradition and some of our copies are inscribed with parental or avuncular love to children who found them under a tree.

Baum himself was quite the busy writer. In addition to this series, he wrote other books of many different kinds - including other series, Young Adult adventure novels that he penned under pseudonyms like Edith Van Dyne, Floyd Akers, and Schuyler Staunton. Because his books are often beautifully made, illustrated, or just plain weird, they have become highly collectable and costly to acquire. Gone are the days when I could walk into a book store (as I once did), find a copy of the novel THE FATE OF A CROWN on the shelf, and pick it up for five dollars. There was even a time when I climbed a tall ladder in a bookshop to come within reach of their children's authors whose names began with B, and found up there an actual copy of Baum's second OZ book THE LAND OF OZ, under its original title THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ. I doubt we paid even ten dollars for it.

But, as I say, he's now a pricey fellow to collect - and the OZ books of his successors (Ruth Plumly Thompson, John R. Neill himself, Jack Snow and others) sometimes even moreso, given their rarity.

The other day, I was lamenting to Donna that Baum ebooks available to for Kindle are almost never illustrated, which takes away so much of their immediate charm. She explained to me that Kindle books are not set up for illustration, which is more the province of the iPad. So I decided to see if anything better was available for iPad. I know, I know - nothing beats reading the original books, and why would I want an iPad version if I had access to those books in the first place? In my case, it's a matter of convenience; I like to read in bed, to read before going to sleep, and my iPad lets me do this without disturbing Donna's sleep by keeping the lights on. Anyway, I was gratified to discover that there are many illustrated Baum ebooks available for iPad, and also a significant number of the Thompson books (which I must confess to liking even somewhat more than Baum's - I find his puns corny and hers elegant). But what most impressed me is the volume I have pictured above.

Delphi Classics is far and away my favorite ebook imprint. They have really cornered the market in terms of "Collected" or "Complete Works" volumes. They are consistently reliable, attractive, and they also venture in their selection beyond the primary classic authors (Dickens, Twain, Verne, Wells, James, Conrad, etc) to some early 20th Century masters like Lovecraft, Hodgson, Machen, Wallace and Rohmer. Some of their books are less than complete owing to certain titles being still under copyright (a truly COMPLETE WORKS OF EDGAR WALLACE is available only in the UK, for some reason), but what these books manage to access is often uncanny. There are titles here you would have to pursue for a lifetime to be able to find. When I discovered that they offered a COMPLETE WORKS OF L. FRANK BAUM, I couldn't believe it. But it's true: if you have an iPad, you can download every word that Baum ever published, under any and all of his various bylines, everything completely illustrated, for a mere $2.99.

Among the treasures to be found herein are THE ROYAL BOOK OF OZ (the first Thompson novel but officially credited to Baum), the two rapturous OZ spin-off books about Trot and Cap'n Bill (THE SEA FAIRIES and SKY ISLAND), fairy tale oddities like AMERICAN FAIRY TALES and QUEEN XIXI OF IX, his gender-bending mystery JOHN DOUGH AND THE CHERUB (which generated an actual "Guess the Cherub's Sex" contest upon its initial publication), his "electrical" science fiction adventure THE MASTER KEY, his "Boy Fortune Hunters" "Mary Louise" and "Aunt Jane's Nieces" series, POLICEMAN BLUEJAY, and even his widow Maud Gage Baum's autobiography. It has it all - including his rarest work THE WOGGLE-BUG BOOK, which no one has rushed to reprint, apparently because it contains an abundance of sexist and racist humor that is fairly unique among this author's work and has not dated at all well.

I have a cherished memory of my own, about the time I surrendered to the OZ book romance I mentioned earlier, and promptly sat down on the floor next to Donna's shelf, pulled down Ruth Plumly Thompson's OZOPLANING WITH THE WIZARD OF OZ (a title that always beckoned to me), and read it there and then, in that same spot. It took me about three hours, but it's three hours I continue to look back on in fond remembrance. The OZ books have been spoken of fondly by a lot of important writers - Ray Bradbury, Gore Vidal, John Updike, Ursula K. Le Guin, even Harlan Ellison. I think I'll be dipping back into them soon.

If I've intrigued you, I can direct you to some additional reading worth the exploration. Back in 2010, Mari Ness decided to re-read and review all 40 books in the main canon of the OZ series for the TOR Books website. You can read that fascinating body of work here.

Oh, and for those of you who are strictly about paper, Books of Wonder is a good place to look for new editions - and even one $24,000 First Edition (Second State) of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ!

UPDATE JULY 20, 2018: Upon further perusal of the Delphi Classics COMPLETE WORKS OF L. FRANK BAUM, I have discovered that only the OZ texts are illustrated. Other important illustrated books, even THE SEA FAIRIES and SKY ISLAND volumes illustrated by OZ artist John R. Neill, do not represent any of the interior illustrations, just the cover art. Still a good buy, but I didn't want to mislead anyone with my endorsement.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.