Saturday, September 13, 2003

Hard on a scholar - giving up his books

Twain expert hopes to keep 11,000 volumes together

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Charles Norton is unhappy about giving up his library of more then 11,000 books.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
COLERAIN TWP. - Walk into Charles A. Norton's modest red brick home. Follow him through the garage and down into his sanctuary - cold from climate control, musty from being below ground.

It reeks of book.

Watch the 82-year-old's left hand shake a bit as he opens his very first novel, Pinocchio, which his mother gave him, Christmas 1928. It's in alphabetical order by author - Carlo Collodi, in this case - just like the other 11,000 books he's accumulated over a lifetime.

Now, his books are for sale.

Slowly, Norton feels age creeping up on him. Norton and his wife of 61 years, Harriet, are moving into the Twin Towers Retirement Community in College Hill today. There's just not enough space for his most treasured possessions. His eyesight is worsening, and he can't read or write as well as when he was younger.

"I'm going to miss this more than anything," Norton says, running his hands across the books' spines. "After you spend more than 70 years putting this together..." His voice trails off.

His has been a lifetime of gathering - no, inhaling - knowledge. He wrote three critical books about Mark Twain, including the first published book-length critique of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

He's a Twain scholar, well-known in the field, and you can tell: More than 800 books by or about Twain are enclosed in two glass bookcases in his study, next door to his vast, impressive library of mostly American literature.

There are Mark Twain statues, nearly a dozen of them; postcards from Mark Twain's home and summer writing study in Elmira, N.Y., books with titles such as Was Huck Black? and even a copy of Mark Twain's handprint. (For the record, the great American storyteller had small hands.)

"The question I always get: How many of these have you read?" Norton says. "I've read a good portion of these. But there's still bookmarks in a bunch of these I never did finish."

A Miami University librarian for 30 years, Norton knows his own collection like a sailor knows the sea. Point at a book's spine, and, from 15 feet away, Norton knows the author. And scholars in the Mark Twain community know him, too - Alan Gribben, head of the English department at an Auburn University branch campus and a well-regarded Twain scholar, said Norton's meticulously researched works are often quoted in other works on Twain.

But now, in his twilight years, Norton says he's finished writing. His last work, a 1,100-page novelization of Twain's life, remains unpublished. With help from his son, Phil, Norton has contacted auction houses in New York City and Chicago to sell his book collection. He's also been in touch with book dealers in Ohio and a dealer in Texas specializing in Mark Twain literature. He's considering eBay, too.

Norton estimates his collection, with some signed books, some first editions, might be worth nearly $100,000. But he wants to keep the collection as one, so he expects to get somewhere around $10,000 for it - nowhere near the amount of money he put into it.

What's his hope for his library?

"The ideal is that there'd be, somewhere, a small college that's just getting a library started," Norton said. "To be able to get a whole collection of American literature with all the Mark Twain works could really help them."

For more information on Charles Norton's book collection and the possibility of purchasing, call his son, Phil Norton, at 756-9554.


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