Thoroughly Into Thurber:
Love, Not Money, Draws Collector to
Literary Favorite Son
(May 14, 2002)
to Aldus Society In the News
Bill Eichenberger, Dispatch Book Critic
people in Columbus know more about James Thurber than does Jay Hoster, who with
his wife, Genie, owns Books on High.
1965, when Hoster left town to attend Haverford College outside Philadelphia,
his passion -- obsession? -- for Thurber had yet to blossom.
I’d tell anyone where I was from, the response would be ‘Columbus who?’
‘Ohio what?’ Nobody had ever heard of Columbus,” he recalled. “Then one
day I was talking to a classmate, and he asked me where I was from. After I’d
told him, he said: ‘Columbus? Columbus, Ohio? That’s James Thurber’s
classmate in question?
guy named Dave Barry,” said Hoster, breaking into a smile.
long after his encounter with Barry, who eventually became a syndicated humorist
writing for The Miami Herald, Hoster began to explore Columbus history and to
collect all things Thurber.
comes from an august Columbus family, the Hosters of 19th-century brewing. And
he points to Thurber’s unshakable ties to the city as a prime reason for his
you have a masterpiece of American humor, My Life and Hard Times, and all the
stories are set right here in Columbus,” Hoster said.
never could get Columbus out of his mind, out of his writing,” he said,
reaching into a box for a facsimile program from the 1953 Ohioana Awards.
was Thurber’s acceptance speech, which read in part:
have lived in the East for nearly 30 years now, but many of my books prove that
I am never very far away from Ohio in my thoughts and that the clocks that
strike in my dreams are often the clocks of Columbus.”
to a wall in a corner of Books on High is a panoramic Downtown photograph shot
immediately after the 1913 flood that Thurber writes about so hilariously in The
Day the Dam Broke .
at these pictures,” said Hoster, holding photos of houses turned on their
sides and upside down, bowled over by the raging waters of the Scioto River.
“There was nothing funny about the flood, just loss of life and loss of
“Thurber wrote brilliantly and humorously about the flood, and that’s how
most people now know Columbus, if they know it at all -- as that place with the
point: Thurber wasn’t all sunshine and yucks.
called it My Life and Hard Times, and I think he really meant it: ‘my life and
hard times.’ “
reached into his box for another bit of Thurberiana, this time the Christmas
1912 edition of the East High School student magazine, The X- Rays -- to which
Thurber contributed several humorous pieces.
Thurber family may have argued about politics, Hoster surmises, and father
Charles may have sided with the wrong candidate when he backed Teddy Roosevelt.
any case, Thurber wrote in The X-Rays :
tell you what I want for Christmas. I want one of those new-fangled bull-mooses
that are for sale down town, an enlarged picture of my hero, Teddy Roosevelt,
some books about Progressive politics, and some progressive emblems and buttons
to wear on my coat so people will know what party I belong to.
you make great progress in business this year!
may be Thurber’s first published work of humor,” Hoster said. “And it was
just like Thurber to turn a family disaster into something humorous. The thing
about Thurber, it’s not ‘the good ol’ days.’ Columbus endured some
pretty hard times, and so did the Thurber family.”
owns dozens of books written by the humorist, many of them first editions, and
plenty of ephemera, including the crown jewel -- a turn-of- the-century
photograph of mother Mary Fisher Thurber (aka Mame).
easy to start collecting Thurber because he wrote so many books -- more than 30,
I think -- and your collecting can go in so many directions right from the
his first editions are, by and large, affordable.”
the first editions -- the holy grails of compulsive collecting -- are not what
primarily interests Hoster as a collector.
of his books are second, third, even fifth editions, which he treasures as long
as they include something close to his heart -- a personalized inscription from
Thurber to the original owner.
Noel Coward, / To be dipped in at intervals. / James Thurber” appears on the
title page of a copy of The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze .
what if it’s a fifth printing and in poor condition?” Hoster asked
rhetorically. “You get a bit of Thurber and a good pun, too.”
has “broken just about every rule of collecting” with his copy of My Life
and Hard Times, formerly the property of “The Fountaine Library, Suite 403,
Grand Theatre Building, Columbus 15, Ohio.”
book, which Hoster assumes was owned by a lending library, boasts the signatures
of Helen W., Mrs. Charles L., Robert C. and William F. Thurber.
bought it from an Akron dealer for $450.
then, he has secured the signatures of grandchildren Sara Thurber Sanders,
Rosemary G. Thurber and Mark Thurber Sanders.
not supposed to write in books,” Hoster said. “You’re not supposed to
paste things -- like period postcards -- in books. I’ve done that with My Life
and Hard Times .”
book features Columbus postcards, circa 1913, as well as inscriptions from
winners of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, including Ian Frazier and the
editorial staff of The Onion -- not to mention other humorists, such as Adam
Gopnik and Merrill Markoe.
genius of Thurber,” P.J. O’Rourke wrote in the book, “was that the
insanity he described was normal for Ohioans.”
book,” Hoster said, “is still a work in progress.”
believes firmly in reading the books he collects -- well, most of them.
was so meticulous. He’d work over a sentence 20 or 30 times,” said Hoster,
reading aloud from the opening of The Night the Bed Fell . “You take out one
comma, and the whole thing falls apart. It’s just perfect.”
has found enrichment in collecting Thurber -- in terms not of cash but of
my heirs and assigns get out of my collection what I put into it, that’d be
great,” Hoster said. “But that’s not why I collect. This is not an
nearly three decades of collecting has yielded only happiness, too -- almost.
one regret is that it doesn’t seem the Hosters and Thurbers knew each
seems a shame somehow.
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