1912: A Good Year for Books

Article Published: Dec. 15, 2011 | Modified: Dec. 15, 2011
1912: A Good Year for Books

The Carolina Parakeet, once widespread across the eastern two-thirds of the United States, was hunted to extinction nearly 100 years ago. Here is James Audubon’s drawing of the colorful bird.

I like to consider myself a thrifty person, although if you ask my wife she would probably use the term “cheapskate.”

Since receiving an Amazon Kindle electronic reader last year for Christmas, I have become an expert on finding free things to read on it. Basically, if you can find a book that is old enough to now be in the public domain, chances are good that you can find a free downloadable version of it for a Kindle.

That’s how I stumbled upon one of the best books I’ve read in a while: William Hornaday’s “Our Vanishing Wild Life.” A contemporary of Teddy Roosevelt, Hornaday was a big proponent of establishing the National Park Service in the early years of the 20th century.

In 1912, nearly 100 years ago, he published “Our Vanishing Wild Life,” chronicling what he considered a disturbing trend of various species of animals becoming extinct in North America.
When Hornaday wrote his book, there were still some Carolina parakeets alive.

“To this charming little green-and-yellow bird, we are in the very act of bidding everlasting farewell,” Hornaday writes. “Ten specimens remain alive in captivity, six of which are in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden, three are in the Washington Zoological Park and one is in the New York Zoological Park.

“Regarding wild specimens, it is possible that some yet remain, in some obscure and neglected corner of Florida; but it is extremely doubtful whether the world will find any of them alive.

“The former range of this species embraced the whole southeastern and central United States. From the Gulf it extended to Albany, N.Y., northern Ohio and Indiana, northern Iowa, Nebraska, central Colorado and eastern Texas, from which it will be seen that once it was widely distributed. It was shot because it was destructive to fruit and for its plumage, and many were trapped alive, to be kept in captivity.”

American nature lovers should be crestfallen to read about our country’s only parakeet, one named for this region, being hunted into extinction. Before reading Hornaday’s book, I had no idea the Carolina parakeet was so widespread.

In another chapter, Hornaday describes the wholesale slaughter of the passenger pigeon, a bird once so numerous that flocks of them flying overhead would blot out the Midwestern sun for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.

“The passenger pigeon millions were destroyed so quickly, and so thoroughly en masse, that the American people utterly failed to comprehend it, and for 30 years obstinately refused that the species had been suddenly wiped off the map of North America,” Hornaday writes, reporting that the last living wild specimen was taken near Detroit in 1908.

Hornaday also describes Stellar’s sea cow, a relative of the manatee that lived in the northern Pacific Ocean near Alaska and grew to nearly 30 feet in length. These slow moving mammals ate kelp and were described as completely tame. Less than 30 years after Europeans discovered the species in the mid-18th century, hunters had killed every last one.

Now on the eve of the 100th anniversary of its publication, “Our Vanishing Wild Life” is essential reading, and if you have a Kindle, free for the asking.

1912 was not just your average year for books. If you like your stories full of action, well, that was a good year for you. A number of fine adventure tomes were published that year, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World,” Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan of the Apes,” Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage,” and not one, but two, new versions of “Robin Hood” (one by Henry Gilbert and one by Louis Rhead).

If you were more of a “highbrow” reader, you could saunter over to the nearest bookstore in 1912 and find newly printed editions of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” Carl Jung’s “Symbols of Transformation,” Franz Kafka’s “The Judgement” and “In the Penal Colony” or D.H. Lawrence’s “The Trespasser.”

2012 is also the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic, and you might be surprised how quickly books about the event hit the shelves a century ago. Just like today’s readers, our great-grandparents hungered for books about the big events of the day, especially if they were tragic and involved the loss of life. Months after the Titanic struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sunk to the bottom of the north Atlantic, Jay Henry Mowbray’s “The Sinking of the Titanic: Eyewitness Accounts” and Marshall Everett’s “The Story of the Wreck of the Titanic” were non-fiction bestsellers.

Another similarity to today’s publishing trends is the high number of “serial” books that were sold in 1912. You don’t put out just one “Harry Potter” book or a solitary “Twilight” book, and the same was true 100 years ago. Edgar Rice Burroughs may not have known it in 1912 when he wrote the first Tarzan book, but it was the first of many novels he would write about a certain vine-swinger.

Victor Appleton sure knew a thing or two about a series in 1912 and published his eleventh Tom Swift adventure: “Tom Swift in the City of Gold.” Meanwhile, Nell Speed was launching her own series that year with “Molly Brown’s Freshman Days.” If you guessed that her first sequel in the series was titled “Molly Brown’s Sophomore Days,” you are a winner! After Speed wrote Molly through college, she wrote three more books about the good-natured heroine before ending the series with “Molly Brown’s Orchard Home.”

Many people believe that the resurgence in interest in classics, such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Sherlock Holmes series and novels like “Pride and Prejudice,” is due in part to their availability and affordability in electronic form. If that is true, we may be witness to a new golden age of reading, one in which the classics are a major part of everyone’s library.

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