Changing Times and Styles and Choices

Nov 30, 2012 | 2 comments

People who come into our house for the first time often comment on the many books that live here with us – books from each of the generations who have occupied this house.  The earliest are probably from the 1880s and include my grandfather’s school books, as well as early Washington State history books that made mention of his father, R.H. Espy, in connection with Oysterville’s founding.

In general, those earliest books can be found on the shelves of the East Room.  There, too, are the books from my parents’ generation – especially books on English history (my mother’s main interest) and art books of the coffee table variety that my father favored.  In our bedroom are the most current books, some acquired when we owned the Bookvendor.  The shelves in my office are overflowing with volumes I use for reference and research.

The room with the most books, though, is the library which was created by my grandmother when a 1913 chimney fire provided a reason for reorganizing the household.  Most of the books in that room date from 1915 forward and include a goodly number of children’s books, poetry and, of course, the obligatory shelf of Harvard Classics.

“You’ll never run out of reading material,” is a frequent comment from visitors.  But, choosing among those old books can be tricky.  For one thing, many are printed in type fonts too small for my old eyes.  Too, I’ve read many of them already and, with all the current-day possibilities available (and time often at a premium), I seldom choose to re-read any except those closest of friends.

Sometimes, though, while I’m waiting for a library book to arrive, I do select something from those on hand.  Last week, I began Son of a Hundred Kings by Thomas B. Costain.  I don’t believe I’ve read it before but I remember reading his best-selling The Silver Chalice when it came out in 1952.  It was probably the first ‘grown-up’ historical novel I had read and I remember that my mother and I read it at the same time – both public library copies, I think, and I think that we were “riveted.”

I can’t say that I feel the same way about Son of a Hundred Kings which seems very dated by today’s standards.  But it did pique my curiosity about the author and I found an interesting comparison in Kirkus Reviews of The Silver Chalice then and now:

In 1953:  Mr. Costain’s best book of fiction, and one that will put out a strong bid to rival The Robe in success with that market. The subject is an illusive [sic] one that has been approached tentatively through the centuries — the mystery of the holy grail… Occasional pandering to modern taste weakens the fundamental values, perhaps, but insures the larger market. A sure best seller.

In 2012, according to Wikipedia:  …so bad, it was good. The book review on the Daily Kos took issue with Costain’s “overheated prose”, calling it a “result is a tasty, melodramatic, and unconsciously hilarious mess.”

I don’t know that I would be quite so harsh.  But, it was nice to find a bit of affirmation for why my first choice of reading material is not often from the books in closest proximity.


  1. Jim Courtnier

    Ha! Thomas B. Costain was my first “adult” writer also! I think the first was “The Black Rose”. His “historical dramas” reveal he real-life causes and deeds that school-history often neglects.
    They’re highly recommended, in fact I’m going to ABE books and see what vintage copies are available.

  2. Kathleen Shaw

    One book that I can re-read over and over is “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The first copy is one of the early paperbacks from the 1960s. I bought it new in the late 60s, and plumb wore it out–it’s now held together with a rubber band. I delightedly found the 50th anniversary edition in Adelaide’s a few years ago and snapped it right up. Still enjoy it! To picque everybody’s interest, remember that paragraph near the beginning about “how hot it was back then…”–fabulous.


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