A Walk on the wild side with Alfred Owre, fellow militant

Opinion December 15, 2010 1 Comment

by Hugh Gilmore
Let’s Get Wild. You probably think that the life of a Books ‘n’ Reading columnist is a rather placid one, a life “of quiet desperation.” But you’d be wrong. Occasionally we cut loose. Why, just before starting “Unbroken,” (see below) I’d only recently finished “Alfred Owre, Dentistry’s Militant Educator” (by Netta Wilson, 1937). Like most of my wilder experiences this one unfolded slowly.

A few months ago I bought several boxes of old books from an estate. In going through them at home, none piqued my curiosity more than a book about touring the Irish countryside. The book itself was nice, but it was its bookplate that caught my eye.

Take a look at the picture I’ve provided. What a portrait of bliss: an old man, lying on a hillside, the very picture of relaxed contentment as he holds his book. “Let the world roll by!” he seems to say. The dream of every dedicated reader.

This was no ordinary bookplate. I’d never seen it before. The owner of the book must have had it designed. Who was he, this “Alfred Owre”?

Thank heavens for Google and the other search engines. I did no other work that day. Hour after hour slid quietly by as I tried to reach into the past and know this fellow, Alfred Owre (pronounced “Ow-er” or “oar,” most of the time. I don’t know which form he used).

An immigrant to America from Norway in the early 1880’s, a boy burdened with being the brilliant oldest child in a destitute family, he’d been a disciplined, hard-working, honest person who’d lived out the American dream. Drawn to dentistry, he rose within the ranks of academia to become Dean of the schools of dentistry at the University of Minnesota, and later, at Columbia University. And he fought a life-long battle to convert dentistry, which did not require its practitioners to receive much scientific training in those days, into a branch of medical science.

Each Internet site I found teased me with additional bits of information. Owre was a compulsive, dedicated walker who walked across America.

He built the world’s greatest personal collection of cloisonné (I know: “be still my heart,” but I am always fascinated by people of humble origins who acquire exquisite taste). And he was forced by hard times to sell his collection at auction for a fraction of its worth. His home library was extensive and incredibly broad in its contents. I found some photographs of it in the University of Minnesota’s archives and downloaded one to my desktop to use as a screensaver.

In trying to reconstruct his library’s contents, I found here and there a reference to a bookseller offering a book “ex-libris Alfred Owry.” By noting the titles I gained a small sense of what his personal library had been like.

And here’s what I imagine to have been the path whereby the book came into my hands. The Irish tour book was published in the 1820s and must have passed through several hands before Owre purchased it, either at auction or from a used book seller. He put his bookplate in it probably at some point after he’d earned enough to afford it, maybe around 1910.

After his death in 1935, his library was sold at auction in New York. From the presence of auction notices in several of the books I’d bought, I’d guess that the owner of the estate I purchased this book from is the link between myself and Alfred.

Who’ll be the next custodian?

In the meantime, I used the Philadelphia Free Library’s inter-library loan system to borrow and read a copy of his only biography. And, in case you want to know, my final verdict is that he was not at all like the fellow depicted on the bookplate. He was hard working, driven, as stubborn as he was idealistic, and probably not one to waste time lying on a hillside letting the rest of the world go by! In fact his drive to be in motion probably killed him. He insisted on hiking even after his final illness had laid him low.

The whole process, from spotting that bookplate to hounding his Google trail, downloading photos of his library, reading his biography, and writing this piece has been fun from start to middle. A hoot, as we say here in Chestnut Hill. Who dares say we don’t know how to have fun out here on the peninsula?

Kindle catch-up

Kindle says you don’t need a computer in order to use a Kindle, but that word “use” is tricky. I must issue a small warning on this question. The Kindle is manufactured and sold by Amazon.com and an account with them is needed in order to download books onto the Kindle.

Two Kindle models are being offered. The cheaper one ($139.00) has Wi-Fi only. If you already have a computer and Internet connection and e-mail, this should be fine for you. I bought this model and I’m quite happy with it. I opened the new box, set up the WiFi, and downloaded a book in less than five minutes.

(My first purchase was Laura Hillenbrand’s new book, “Unbroken.” Since she wrote “Seabiscuit,” one of the few books I’ve ever read twice in a row, I thought I’d start with something exciting.)

If you have no computer and no e-mail, however, you’ll need to have a computer-using friend set up and manage an Amazon account for you. Or, you should probably buy the more expensive Kindle model ($189.00) because it has Wi-Fi plus 3 G. That means it will operate on the same principles that drive a cell phone and it will allow you to establish an Amazon account. It does other things wondrous to behold, but our concern here is books and reading so we’ll leave it at that.

And another request

Please send me the title of your pick(s) as “most enjoyed book(s) of the year. They don’t have to be recent. I received some good suggestions this week after last week’s request and you’ll be interested to read them in my end-of-year column. Want to be included? Write me at gilmorebookshop@yahoo.com. Thanks.

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  • Barry Cassidy

    Actually his name is pronounced Oue (as in ouch) Ree. This is how his son Alfred Owre, Jr. and his grand daughter Jane Owre pronounce it (both friends of mine).