"Some of my best leading men
have been dogs and horses.
-Elizabeth Taylor

Intestinal Fortitude
Reader's Digest. Two words which have either a chilling effect on purveyors of literature, or two words which inspire warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgia. Being of the former ilk, I have purposefully avoided Reader's Digest publications since the age of ten when I read a story in the magazine that set off two years of irrational fear of the dark and recurring nightmares, but that's fodder for another article. Reader's Digest is loved for their editing out of the tedious details that get in the way of an otherwise quick read. Reader's Digest is hated for that very same reason. Since ten, I have gone through life sans Reader's Digest. It's been a blissful trip focused only on complete and unabridged publications. It's been an ignorant trip, wrongly assuming any book published by Reader's Digest to be but a shadow of its former self. So imagine my surprise when I discovered in clear print on the title pages of two Reader's Digest books that inexplicably made their way into my possession, the words "complete text", a phrase I thought was antithetic to the publisher.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Stories
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Reader's Digest, 1991
Illustrated by Joseph Ciardiello
ISBN: 0-89577-384-8
336 pp

Uncharted Waters
At the time of publication, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde received instant acclaim by breaching the topic of split personalities, a subject unfamiliar to most of the population at the time. He plays with themes of human duality - good and bad residing in the same person - and the temptation to feed them both. For some time Robert Louis Stevenson had been toying with the idea for a story, and in 1886 struck gold with the publication of Jekyll and Hyde. It took the English-speaking world by storm, and forever embodied it's title characters in Western vernacular. When pressed upon its origins, Stevenson put it thus:

    I had long been trying to write a story on this subject, to find a body, a vehicle for that strong sense of man's double being which must at times come in and overwhelm the mind of every thinking creature.
Since publication the story's central theme has enjoyed such popularity and is recounted in so many books and films it's practically an industry unto itself. Jekyll and Hyde follows Dr. Jekyll, a Victorian England chemist, in his pursuits of his devil within by concocting a tincture that brings his dark side to the forefront in the form of Mr. Hyde; a side as physically different from Jekyll as it is spiritually. It's all fun and games for Jekyll to embrace his darkest compulsions in the form of Hyde. However, Hyde has no compulsion for Jekyll's civilized lifestyle which ultimately proves problematic. The genie, unleashed, becomes impossible to put back in the bottle.

Be Careful What You Wish For
As with other stories in this volume, a main theme of Jekyll and Hyde is that wishes are double-edged swords. What began as a harmless way to feed the Doctor's dark compulsions leads to criminal behavior, ultimately ending in murder. Jekyll finds he can't control Hyde, and so makes the fatal decision to physically kill him, regardless of the existential consequences it may hold for himself.

Similarly, included in this volume, are The Bottle Imp in which the main protagonist relies on a genie-like creature for his happiness, but is ultimately cursed by the magic, and our main character in Will o' the Mill finds his double-edged sword within his own fierce independence. In The Body Snatcher, it's ambition which cuts both ways.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Reader's Digest, 1991
Illustrated by David Johnson
ISBN: 0-89577-401-1
318 pp

The Price of Success
With the publication of A Study In Scarlet in 1887, Sherlock Holmes was set on a course with destiny. They were lean times for Arthur Conan Doyle, a fledgling writer who couldn't give a story away let alone sell it. But that was all about to change. He is purported to have sold that first Holmes tale and all rights that went with it for 25 pounds - about $125. As the story caught fire, additional editions were published and Doyle unexpectedly found his beloved Holmes character in great demand. Riding the wave of success, by the early 1890s his detective stories were appearing monthly in The Strand magazine. But fame and deadlines can wear on even the most genius of writers, so it was with great shock for Holmes fans (and no doubt satisfaction for Doyle) that he killed off the super sleuth with the publication of The Final Problem in 1893.

The years following Holmes' death - known as the Great Hiatus in literary circles - finds Doyle the doctor undertaking a promising new branch of medicine called ophthalmology. In 1899 when the British empire waded into war in South Africa, it was Dr. Doyle who volunteered as an army surgeon, but it was Doyle the author who eventually was knighted for turning public opinion on the conflict. Meanwhile, fans of Sherlock Holmes demanded more adventures, and in 1901 Doyle acquiesced with the publication of The Hound of the Baskervilles, an adventure which although written after, takes place prior to The Final Problem. The fans ate it up, but it would be another two years before Holmes' death would be set right in the eyes of the adoring public.

New World Order
With the world set to rights, Holmes fans devoured The Return of Sherlock Holmes. A collection of thirteen stories published in 1903 and 1904, The Return includes such classic adventures as The Empty House, The Dancing Men, Black Peter, and The Six Napoleons among others, and is generously illustrated by David Johnson.

There are some Holmes purists who would argue the stories in The Return are inferior to Doyle's earlier works. Upon examination though, Doyle is consistent with the same instinctual attention to detail that Holmes possesses in his earlier cases, with the uniting factor of narrative. Told from the perspective of Holmes' sidekick Dr. Watson - a character which embodies the real-life medical expertise of the author - Doyle is, in essence, writing as himself under the cloak of Dr. Watson. It proves an effective vehicle for conveying the otherwise cerebral science of criminology, presenting it as a record of the inferior Dr. Watson's observations while working beside the superior genius of Sherlock Holmes.

Casebook of Sherlock Holmes
by A. Conan Doyle
Classic Press, 1968
Illustrated by Don Irwin
281 pp

Stuff of Legends
The invention of the detective novel wasn't Arthur Conan Doyle's doing. There were already detective stories around when he entered the fray, but inventing a detective superstar set him apart. Casebook of Sherlock Holmes is filled with Doyle's most popular work, the original Holmes stories written between 1887 and 1893. Although late to the game, included also is The Hound of the Baskervilles, published in 1901 and arguably Doyle's best work. The tale involves a wealthy landowner with no apparent heirs, and a ghastly hound hailing from the netherworld which terrorizes the residents living along the moorlands. However, nothing is as it appears. Doyle delivers us a wonderful story about a legend in which not all is as it seems, nor the people affected by it. By the conclusion of the story the reader is questioning everything, and unlike a typical Holmes case wrapped neatly up by tale's end, some threads are left hanging. For when the brilliant detective cracks the case, a greater mystery materializes when the villain is lost somewhere on the moor. It's an unfriendly place filled with pits and bogs that can swallow a full grown man, which it is assumed our villain has succumbed to. But has he? We may never know, but it certainly is fodder for a new legend on the moor.

This Educator Classic Library edition (seventh in the series) by Classic Press and illustrated by Don Irwin, is aimed at young readers. Definitions of words the reader may be unfamiliar with are graciously provided in its margins (Doyle wrote in Victorian-era english). By so doing, the publishers have not only created a book filled with the most successful detective stories ever written, they've also inadvertently created a sort of Sherlock Holmes for Dummies manual from which to grow a new generation of fans. I know; I was once one of them.

by Carlo Collodi
Classic Press, 1968
Illustrated by William Dempster
215 pp

Coming of Age
We all know the story of Pinocchio. Or at least we think we do. It's the tale about a puppet-maker named Gepetto who makes a puppet that talks and behaves much like a real boy. And when the puppet tells a lie, his nose grows. All true, but there's more to it than that. So much more. Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio is not the morality tale portrayed by Disney. Rather, I would argue, it is a coming of age story.

Pinocchio is a bad puppet. Very bad, to be sure. He does all the things a real live boy does - disobeys, cuts school, sells his textbooks and follows his every whim with the delightful abandon of living in a world where actions have no consequences. Unfortunately, as Pinocchio is soon to discover, there are consequences in actions, even for wooden marionettes.

In Disney's popularization of Pinocchio, the story's been simplified, popified, sanitized, and moralized, resulting in a tale with Puritanical overtones. In Collodi's original story we're presented in Pinocchio a pre-pubescent child prior to reaching the age of reasoning and accountability. Through much of the story the puppet wouldn't even be aware he's not a real boy if it weren't for other characters pointing it out. His pursuit of the Blue Fairy isn't over a desire to become a real boy; he just wants to be loved.

Having conquered his own hedonistic tendencies, he no longer

suffers the indignity of an appendage that swells of

its own accord. He has mastered self-control.

Pinocchio is a fool. Child-like gullibility is his strongest trait, next to a willful spirit to do things his way. Pinocchio is an adventurer. Reading his story one gets the impression he sets no boundaries for himself, oblivious as to how his lack of rules negatively impact others. His misdeeds eventually lead Gepetto - the father figure - to being swallowed by a fish. The Blue Fairy - his mother figure - whom in Pinocchio's darkest hours is his only ally, falls ill and grows sicker and more distant with each lie told. It's not until he winds up in the belly of a fish himself, that a change in his behavior begins to take hold.

Inside the fish, Pinocchio encounters Gepetto. He's very weak, having fallen ill from many days spent inside the belly of the fish. The encounter sparks in Pinocchio an ember of compassion, something he's not experienced before, and with that Pinocchio is on his way to manhood. He saves Gepetto and begins to nurse him back to health through hard work and sacrifice - the sacraments of being an adult - a period during which he learns the Blue Fairy has fallen sick from grief and lies penniless in a hospital. News to which Pinocchio responds by giving all the money he has to assist with her recovery. Pinocchio is no longer a puppet-like child, selfish and inconsiderate of others. That night he dreams of the Blue Fairy, and in the dream she tells him:

    Because of your kind heart I forgive you for all your misdeeds. Boys who help other people so willingly and lovingly deserve praise, even if they are not models in other ways. Always listen to good counsel, and you will be happy.
Having demonstrated he has overcome the inherent selfishness of his child being, Pinocchio wakes the next morning a very real boy. A responsible man-child now, he's left the world of childhood unaccountability behind. He is in a word, a man. Having conquered his own hedonistic tendencies, he no longer suffers the indignity of an appendage that swells of its own accord. He has mastered self-control.

The beauty of this Educator Classic Library version of Pinocchio (third in the series) lies in its artwork. Sketches by William Dempster harken back to the days before mass marketed paperbacks, when a book was an artistic accomplishment. Each chapter ends with a graphic by Dempster reminiscent of wood block impressions of yesteryear. The result is a product similar in look and feel to the bound word of Collodi's era; the era in which Pinocchio found its first audience.

It's worth mentioning the backword here. The editors have assembled a thoroughly enjoyable section on puppetry. It includes a biography on Collodi (not his real name), different types of puppets, and instructions on making a paper mache' hand puppet and theater that the kids will like too.

The Virginian
by Owen Wister
Classic Press, 1968
Illustrated by Don Irwin
282 pp

How the West Was Spun
Owen Wister could have filled a book with his personal life. The son of a doctor, Owen attended Harvard where he was classmates and chums with Teddy Roosevelt (The Virginian is dedicated to him). Upon graduating, he toured Europe, as was (and still is) the preferred rite of passage for ivy leaguers. While in Paris, he met composer Franz Liszt who lavished praise on him for a piano piece he'd written. He probably could have composed as a profession, but fortunately for fans of the Western, he became a writer instead.

To Theodore Roosevelt
Some of these pages you have seen, some you
have praised, one stands new written because you blamed it;
and all, my dear critic, beg leave to remind you
of their author's changeless admiration
-author dedication, The Virginian

Regularly featured in Harper's, Wister's stories of the Wild West were hugely popular, and they afforded him the means to travel there on a regular basis. By all accounts he'd fallen in love with the cowboys of the American frontier on a summer vacation in the 1880s. Today we'd call it a "working vacation" - for in the heyday of cattle ranching no idle hands went unused, much to the apparent delight of Owen. By 1902 he'd organized his experiences and the characters he'd met out west into a novel. The Virginian was the first cowboy novel, and remains the bellwether for an entire genre.

Set mostly in the vicinity of Medicine Bow, Wyoming, The Virginian (sixth in the Educator Classic Library series) is told by an Eastern city slicker who's been invited to the ranch of Judge Henry, proprietor of the Sunk Creek outfit. A virgin to America's West, a virgin land itself, he describes it with child-like amazement at every turn.

Upon arriving in Medicine Bow, he's met by the Virginian, an employee of the Sunk Creek outfit, and a bit of a man-crush ensues:

    He walked toward me . . . in his eye, in his face, in his step, in the whole man, there dominated a something potent to be felt, I should think, by man or woman.
As the story progresses, the Virginian and the virgin gain respect for each other and their friendship blossoms. Gradually the city slicker gets Western-fied as Wister introduces character-types that will become the staple of the modern Western. There's the French proprietor - his accent a sure giveaway - the gunslinging rustler, pompous religious zealot, the fella too stupid and inexperienced not to fall in with the wrong crowd (but otherwise harmless), Winchesters galore (the gun that won the West), and of course there's the cowboy's best friend, his horse. And then there's the girl. There's always a girl, earmarked for the Western's hero, in this case the Virginian.

The girl comes in the form of Miss Mary Stark Wood, of Bennington, Vermont. Having run away from a marriage engagement, Molly (the name she goes by) takes the position of school marm in the community of Bear Creek. A virgin to the West herself, the Virginian takes an immediate liking to her. She is slow to warm to him, but agrees to share books in exchange for riding lessons. The relationship blossoms from the Virginian's perspective, but not so much from hers. She's from a proud heritage and is hesitant to marry beneath her, but when her suitor becomes infirm from a bullet wound, she takes it on as her responsibility to nurse him back to health, and the plot takes a turn at romance.

The American West can be tough on relationships in the 1880s. There's the geography of the region - vast distances must be traveled just to visit a neighbor. The absence of law - or the presence of vigilante law - can force a person to question their values and the values of those they love. The latter proves a minor set-back for our heroic couple, but eventually things resolve themselves as is their way in the West, the couple marries and we're to believe they live happily ever after. The end.

Louis L'Amore and a boatload of other cowboy novelists have Owen Wister to thank for their careers. To think, if not for a summer vacation spent out West, the stories of life on the range might never have been recorded. Or, if Wister had taken up composing rather than writing, the genre might never have been established. That's called dodging a bullet. From a Winchester, no doubt.

posted 02/15/16