“The Pawtucketville Bibliophile” by Steve O’Connor

Steve O’Connor discovered a room full of books and an incredible story in Pawtucketville:

A few years ago, while browsing through The Lowell Sun, I came across a small announcement in the classified section under Free Offers. “Sherlock Holmes Books Free to Interested Party.” I was intrigued by the announcement, which seemed in itself like one of those mysterious events which might actually begin a Sherlock Holmes story.

“Look here Watson! What do you make of that?” asks the great consulting detective, one hand in the pocket of his smoking jacket, the other holding a meerschaum pipe which he waves toward The Lowell Sun, his eyes squinting through a wreath of gray smoke.

“Hmmm. What a singular advertisement, Holmes!” the faithful doctor replies.

With these suggestive images in mind, I called the number printed below the curious phrase. A young woman answered. She explained that her late grandfather had been a great fan of Sherlock Holmes and had bought several editions of his adventures, as well as commentaries, guidebooks, and other Holmes literary memorabilia. She and her father had decided that they would like to give the books to someone who would appreciate them. “That’s me,” I said. She gave me her address, which was in Pawtucketville, and I drove over on a fine summer afternoon.

The young woman, baby in arms, greeted me, and introduced me to her father. A stack of books on the back porch caught my attention, principal among which was The Annotated Sherlock Holmes-two large volumes containing the four novels and fifty-six short stories in which Conan Doyle related the adventures of the amazing London sleuth, illustrated with maps, diagrams, photographs, and drawings. If I had had my own Doctor Watson to accompany me on that trip, I’m sure that I would have copious and detailed notes on the case: the exact address, the names of the woman and her father, and in particular, the name of the deceased, who is really the subject of the case, as you shall see.

When the father and daughter saw how delighted I was with the work I’ve just described, they asked me if I was a lover of books in general, because the old man had left quite a few books behind, which I was free to examine upstairs. No cat ever leaped with greater alacrity toward a saucer of milk than I flew up those stairs, but I was unprepared for what I found there. It was an apartment full of books. I was like Ali-Baba in the cave of the forty thieves- a treasure of tomes lining the walls and strewn everywhere. “We’ve already given a lot away,” the man said as he entered behind me.

I scanned the titles. There were histories and compilations: English Essayists, The Romantic Poets, The Age of Enlightenment, History of Philosophy, Quarrels That Shaped the Constitution, The Story of Islam, Toynbee’s Civilization. Then there was the literature: Dante’s Inferno, Chekov’s stories, Joyce, Proust, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Milton. Philosophers, orators, poets. In all this world of riches, I happened to pick up a beautiful copy of The Rubayat of Omar Kayam, and opened it:

The Moving Finger writes, and having written moves on
Not all your sorrow nor all your tears can wash away a single line.

It occurred to me that the room in which I stood contained much of the accumulated wisdom of the world. I turned to the man who stood behind me and asked, “Who was your father? Was he a professor at the university? A historian? A scholar?”

The man smiled, a little sadly, I thought, and said, “No, he was lineman for the telephone company.”

He explained to me that his father had come to this country as a young man from Holland. When he arrived, with little formal education, he began to study English. He was soon speaking it, but some of the young men he worked with at that time used to laugh at the mistakes he made when he spoke. They told him he would never learn to speak proper English. Apparently, he resolved then and there that he would not only master the English language, but that he would know it better than those who laughed at him, and be better educated than they. And he began to read. And he read, and read, and read. All his life. He read everything: science, law, literature, history-and of course-Arthur Conan Doyle, who remained his favorite. I left with a few boxes of books, and with a profound respect for this man whom I regretted I had never met, because he was more than a lineman; he was a Renaissance man.

Doctor Watson closed his notebook, and tucked it with his pencil into the pocket of his tweed jacket. “A fascinating case, Holmes. What an extraordinary individual. Exceptionally intelligent and highly motivated.”

“Precisely, Watson. It is a fact of human nature that I have often remarked. We assume that the best way to motivate human beings is to encourage them and tell them they can do something. In fact the opposite is often true. When others told this uneducated man that he could not learn, he resolved with stalwart determination to prove them wrong. And he not only succeeded in outdoing them,” said the great detective, “but transformed himself in the process,” and he added with a modest smile, “I’m only glad that I was of some small assistance.”

One Response to “The Pawtucketville Bibliophile” by Steve O’Connor

  1. PaulM says:

    Thanks for this great story, Steve. This falls in the category of “Don’t ever underestimate anyone.” In the 1980s, when the Lowell Public Art Collection was growing by one scupture each year, the artwork on either side of the canal bridge on Central Street provoked controversy. Titled “Human Construction” and created by Carlos Dorrien, who was born in Mexico and had studied engineering at Lowell Tech, the non-representational style of the sculpture made some people angry.

    When they looked at it they saw broken hunks of stone piled atop one another. Carlos, of course, said the form represented the elemental urge of human beings to build structures for themselves. The Lowell Sun was the main forum for attacks on the sculpture, the artists, and the nasty folks who brought “that thing” to Lowell. At the peak of the argument, a woman about my age whom I knew from doing business with her small cleaning firm, and with whom I had never discussed culture, said to me, “I don’t know why people are upset. In the place I come from in Portugal, we have art and monuments like that everywhere. I like it.”