Stephen King is a master of mystery and suspense. So of course his Top Ten list starts with a big surprise: a little noted and long out-of-print short story anthology.
The Golden Argosy: The Most Celebrated Short Stories in the English Language was one of innumerable works published during the 20th century that sought to make it easier for busy, middle class Americans to access literature. Back before the yoga boom, many people considered reading the path to enlightenment.
The book was edited by two men, Charles Grayson, best known as a screenwriter of B-movies at Warner Brothers, and Van H. Cartmell, who edited a wide range of anthologies. Not much else is known about them or their work. How surprised might they have been to know that their book would inspire one of the world’s most celebrated authors.
King’s pick reflects the central message and larger meaning of The Top Ten: The greatest books do not comprise a short list created by experts; they are the universe of works that matter to each of us. They are the books we discovered and found, for reasons sometimes hard to explain, that they spoke to us in ways other works did not. It’s one reason why we say we don’t read books, books read us.
So enjoy the story of how King stumbled upon this beloved book, which has gained new recognition thanks to his selection.
Appreciation of The Golden Argosy by Stephen King
I first found The Golden Argosy in a Lisbon Falls (Maine) bargain barn called The Jolly White Elephant, where it was on offer for $2.25. At that time I only had four dollars, and spending over half of it on one book, even a hardcover, was a tough decision. I’ve never regretted it.
Originally published in 1947 and reissued in 1955—but not updated or reprinted since—The Golden Argosy is an anthology of roughly fifty-five short stories. The editors made no pretensions to “quality fiction,” but simply tried to publish the best-loved stories published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to the post–World War II period.
Though it is in terrible need of updating (there is no Raymond Carver, for instance, no Joyce Carol Oates, because such writers came along too late for inclusion), it remains an amazing resource for readers and writers, a treasury in the true sense of the word, covering everything from sentimental masterpieces such as Bret Harte’s “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” to realistic character studies such as “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather.
Every reader will find glaring omissions (Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde,” for instance), but you’ve got your Faulkner classic (“A Rose for Emily”), your Hemingway (“The Killers”), and your Poe (“The Gold-Bug”). It includes “The Rich Boy,” in which F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observes “the rich are different from you and me,” and overlooked gems from writers such as Sherwood Anderson (“I’m a Fool”) and John Collier (“Back for Christmas”).
The Golden Argosy taught me more about good writing than all the classes I’ve ever taken. It’s the best $2.25 I ever spent.