Literature has long had a love affair with dogs. Granted, we do see the occasional literary cat, such as Vicki Myron's Dewey, a tale about a library cat, or Crookshanks, Hermione's cantankerous orange companion in the Harry Potter novels, but by and large, dogs in literature outnumber their feline counterparts 10 to one. Take John Grogan's Marley & Me for example. The book is actually a memoir, but using the family pet, a handful of a Yellow Labrador Retriever named Marley, as the key theme throughout. Marley became a bestselling book, then a major motion picture starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson. Readers and film-goers alike had their hearts touched by the pooch.
And truth isn't a factor - fiction lovers can't get enough dog stories, either. From the small but brave Toto from L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz, to the courageous collie in Lassie Come-Home, authors and audiences are enchanted by the adventures of their furry, four-legged, canine subjects. In 2008, novelist Garth Stein even wrote a successful novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, told from the perspective of the protagonist's dog, Enzo. And while it might sound ludicrous or far-fetched, the skillful writing pulled it off - largely because people love dogs, and dog books.
With that in mind, we spoke to Dr. Bryan Cummins, professor, collector, author and Ontario-based expert on dog books. He's been a bookseller with AbeBooks since 1999, and kindly agreed to offer his insights into the world of dog books.
We've also compiled a list of some of the best-loved fictional dog books available, from collectible, to children's, to fiction for adults, to help you discover more about man's best friend.
AbeBooks: Are you still a professor of anthropology at McMaster and Trent universities in Ontario?
Bryan Cummins: I teach part-time (and have for 20 years) at both McMaster and Trent Universities. With teaching, Bryan's Books, royalties from my own books (I have authored or co-authored 16 books), consulting fees for my anthropological work, and writing feature pieces, I have never felt compelled to seek tenure. I have a Ph.D. in socio-cultural anthropology and conduct research primarily in the eastern subarctic with the Cree and with shepherds in the French Pyrenees.
Abe: What made you specialize in dog books?
Bryan Cummins: I have always been fascinated by dogs – they are "the wolf in our living rooms". It is remarkable to think that the domestic dog – Canis lupus familiaris – shares 99% of its DNA with the wolf and yet we let our children roll on the floor with them. Dogs are also the most genetically malleable species we have, with over 400 breeds (recognizing that "breed" is a contentious term) recognized worldwide. They never cease to amaze me, especially with the seemingly infinite ways to which we put them to use, capitalizing on their intelligence and senses.
I had always bought dog books, primarily those dealing with my favourite breed (see below) and then related breeds. Once, after I had made some money consulting, I ordered some books from the late Nigel Aubrey-Jones who had either the first or second rare dog book business in North America. I had also done some writing for a magazine that he owned. I ordered some rather pricey books from him and he called and said "Have you ever thought of going into the dog book business?" I replied that I had not and his response was "You should. You know dogs and you know books." I mentioned this to my [late] wife, Tricia, and she agreed with him. We subsequently bought some inventory from him – with his very generous help in selection and purchase price – and we were off.
James W. English
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Louis de Bernieres
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Abe: Where do you find these rare and out of print dog books?
Bryan Cummins: I could take the easy way out and say that it is a trade secret, but I won't. We bought our initial inventory from Nigel (he kept some, as he remained in business for a while) and later bought the inventory from a number of dealers in Canada and the UK who were going out of business. Shortly before he passed away, Nigel generously offered to sell us his remaining stock, which we bought. We also made annual or semi-annual trips to the UK to buy books.
However, shortly after we went into business, in 1995, we found out that Clifford "Doggie" Hubbard was buying up almost everything to be had. Doggie was a legend for a number of reasons: among other things, he wrote 47 books about dogs and had the largest collection of dog books in the world. We once called him when we were in Wales and he very graciously invited us to his home. We were there for several hours. He had 40,000 dog books; 25,000 which were his private collection and 15,000 for sale. When we arrived, we were admitted to the front section of his lovely country home. After a brief period, he said "You seem to know dog books" and he invited us in to what we came to call "the inner sanctum". Truly remarkable – his home had been specially rebuilt to accommodate his books, many of which could not be found anywhere else in the world. Whereas lesser dealers and collectors would consider themselves fortunate to have a single copy of a 19th or 18th century book, Doggie would have multiple copies. How did he start? He had worked for Harrod's, the legendary London store, and convinced them they needed a rare book department to go with their in-print department and so would travel the countryside buying used books. At the same time, he bought dog books for himself. Harrod's later closed the out-of-print section of their book department, but by then Doggie had acquired every out-of-print/rare/used dog book in the UK! (I'm not saying anything that is not common knowledge: Doggie made this common knowledge before he passed away). I am pleased to say that I wrote a tribute to the late, great Doggie Hubbard for a magazine after he passed away. Truly a wonderful man.
Abe: What dogs, if any, have you owned in your life?
Bryan Cummins: I started as a four-year-old with an English Cocker Spaniel named Buddy, who lived to be 13. When he passed away, I got Rogue, the finest animal to ever walk God's green Earth. He was an Airedale of Oorang ancestry. At the same time, my mum got a German-bred Boxer. My sister, who had left home by that time, had a Miniature Poodle and shortly thereafter, he moved in with us and, in a sense, that set the template because as an adult we almost always had three dogs, it seems. I went off to university and then the working world. I was working on a Native reserve ("reservation" in the US) in northern Quebec and ordered an Airedale from New Mexico. Tricia, who I met on the reserve, was to become my partner for the next quarter-century until her passing in August 2008, had Benson, a Black-and-Tan Coonhound. Angie, the Airedale and Benson were our dogs until 1990 when we acquired Beau, a Yorkie of boundless charm. We lost Benson at the age of 13 on August 1, 1995 and Angie at the age of 12 on August 18, 1995. Katy Airedale entered our lives on March 17, 1996 and in May, 2000, we acquired my mum's dog when she passed away. Tinker was a 12.5-year-old "Shocker" (Sheltie/Cocker cross). Beau went to his reward at the age of 19 years, eight months; Tinker at the age of 17 years, five months. Katy turned 13 on January 26 – our dogs are well loved and well cared for!
Abe: In your opinion, what is the greatest dog-themed novel?
Bryan Cummins: Tough to say, although probably most people would suggest Jack London's classics The Call of the Wild and White Fang. These should really be read simultaneously as they are mirror images of each other. In the former, a dog – Buck, a Collie/Saint Bernard cross – is taken from the "civilization" of the Santa Clara valley of California and thrown into the gold rush of Alaska where he overcomes many obstacles, including the death of his final master, to become "the dominant primordial beast". In White Fang, a wolf-dog overcomes equally horrible circumstances – including the barbarity of the dog fighting pit – in the north only to be rescued and taken to the south. There are Darwinian undertones (or should that be "overtones") to both these works. There is also something slightly ethnocentric – some would say "racist" - to both of these classics. In the first, the dog born and raised in civilization overcomes the wild and the "primitive" to conquer all in his return to the wild. In the second, it is "civilization" that saves the wolf-dog from his "primitive" environment when he is taken to "civilization" (California again, if I recall correctly). Jack London is said to have held less than liberal or progressive social views (and was a fond supporter of dog fighting and cock fighting) and these might have seeped through in his books.
I think the first such book that I read was Burnford's The Incredible Journey which I still like because it has a wonderful depiction of the Bull Terrier character. Bodger, the grizzled old Bull Terrier is beautifully depicted. Anybody who has ever owned a Bully can relate to him. Disney, in their original 1960s film, did the book justice. Later remakes, including Homeward Bound, are wretched. Among other crimes, they replaced the Bull Terrier with an American Bulldog and a yellow Lab with a Golden retriever – and the animals talk! Terrible.
Abe: Who or what (library, organization) has the greatest collection of dog books?
Bryan Cummins: At the moment, I don't really know but clearly, as I mentioned above, Doggie Hubbard's was in a league of its own. Today, I would probably venture to say The Kennel Club (UK) or The American Kennel Club is the most complete. I had the opportunity to visit The Kennel Club's library in London and it is pretty spectacular.
Abe: Why have so many authors chosen to write novels about dogs or make them into key characters in novels? (especially as dogs can't talk).
Bryan Cummins: I think there are a few reasons. One is that the dog is found in almost every society in the world. It was the first domestic species, the most widely dispersed and, as I mentioned above, the most diverse in it the number of breeds. Almost everybody can relate to a dog, especially since so many of us have them as companion animals (I am not fond of the term "pet") during childhood. In that sense, as well, they bring us back to our youth: a gentler, kinder, nurturing time of our lives before mortgages, death, and the worries and anxieties of adulthood.
Also, the dog allows a human character in a book to show another side. Somebody can be a bastard but show his/her tender side towards her/his dog (even Hitler was said to love his German Shepherd while he was trying to eradicate half the human population). Dogs are also perceived – and utilized – to show those traits that we wish that we could manifest more frequently: kindness, wisdom, compassion, fidelity, strength of character, tenderness, valour. With few exceptions – Cujo probably being the best known – dogs are usually noble characters.
Abe: What is your favorite breed of dog and why?
As you might have inferred from the above, I think the Airedale is beyond compare. There used to be an expression: "An Airedale can do anything any other dog can do, and do it better". This was later changed to "An Airedale can do anything any other dog can do and then whip the other dog if he has to". The expression, I understand, is attributed to Teddy Roosevelt. Airedales are handsome, intelligent, trainable, durable, rugged and completely reliable. I have owned three and, after I left home, my parents owned another (a fourth for my family in total). These were dogs that were completely reliable around children, small dogs, senior citizens – anything, but God help anybody who tried to inflict harm on a family member. They were the first breed to be trained for police and military duty and for years were the only non-German breed (German Shepherd Dogs, Rottweilers, and Dobermans being the others – all German breeds) used for these purposes. This is remarkable considering that the others were all developed for police and protection duties – the German Shepherd is no shepherd - and the Airedale was developed for hunting. They are forgiving of smaller and lesser dogs (which means 99% of other dogs) and are adaptable to any situation. Having said all that, I despair for the Airedale as it is being bred now, for the huge majority of breeders know nothing of its illustrious past and are trying to make it a one-size-fits-all black-and-tan Golden Retriever.
I also like all the terrier breeds because they have such an abundance of charm. I am also very fond of the livestock guarding breeds, such as the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, Kuvasz and related breeds, of which there are about 50. I was very fortunate to write a book with my late wife about the working dogs (the Pyrenean Mountain Dog and the Pyrenean Shepherd) in the French Pyrenees. It is incredible to see these animals at work.
Abe: What's the rare dog book you've always wanted to own but never found?
Bryan Cummins: Beyond a shadow of a doubt it is Sydenham Edwards' Cynogaphia Brtitanica (1800). It is the rarest of all cynological titles, although not the first. Nigel Aubrey-Jones, in over 50 years in the business, found only one copy. (editor's note: AbeBooks appears to have only one copy, and it is a limited edition facsimile reproduction. For those interested in the text only, there are many print-on-demand copies available).