Paper Trails

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I have always been taken with the idea of treasure-hunting. Not that I have done much of it myself. I do recall searching (without success) for a reputed abandoned gold mine on Tom Ball Mountain in the New England Berkshires, and I once went so far as to put together an anthology of treasure-hunting stories, which didn’t sell very well. But frankly, for me treasure-hunting is purely an intellectual sport, which is probably just as well. Reading about unexpected discoveries and adventurous expeditions is on the whole more practical than crashing through underbrush and keeping a weather eye for black bears, especially at my age.

I have to admit that the book in hand isn’t ageing well either, physically. The paper is browning almost to the point of flaking and has that distinctive smell of old bookshops whose proprietors have taken in too much stock and will never again have shelf space. After all, sixty years of life as a paperback is a lot to ask of any book. I am nevertheless reluctant to put this one out of its misery to make room for some crisper and more attractive volume. The Scholar Adventurers (1950) still speaks to my own ancient ambitions and interests, terminated by reality equally long ago but never quite extinguished.

In case there is any confusion, I must make it plain that the treasure-hunting involved here is of a very different kind. No metal-detectors. Richard Altick’s protagonists are all searching for their own versions of the Lost Ark, but unlike Indiana Jones their hunting ground is libraries, muniment rooms, family archives and other paper-choked places. Their quarry is new facts – and documents – about the lives and works of great writers.

If this sounds boring, be assured that it isn’t. What we’ve got here is a grand collection of stories about men (and a few women) who devoted their careers to literary detection. Of course they are nearly all academics (I know, the very term is enough to put some people

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About the contributor

Charles Elliott is a retired editor and author of several anthologies and books of essays.

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