Should I give a dead stranger's book to his children?
July 25, 2009 12:22 PM   Subscribe

I found a neat antique book, and now I've tracked down its old owner. He's dead. Should I offer to give it to his children?

I found a CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics 25th edition from 1941 at a recycling center! It's in excellent shape, and, being a physicist, it'll make for a cool desk piece. It has a name and address handwritten on the inside cover.

I did some googling on the person who wrote his name on the inside cover, and I found his NYTimes obituary. He died a year and a half ago at age 88. He sounds like he was a pretty interesting guy - an orthopedic surgeon, lecturer, college track star, golf enthusiast, ran the Boston marathon, served in US Army Medical Corps, animal rights philanthropist, etc.

I also located his five children (he also has many grandchildren and even a few great-grandchildren).

Now for my question:

Would it be a nice gesture to contact one of his children and offer to send the book to him? I feel like this could be a touchy situation, since I know little about these people or their former patriarch. The only sign of his ownership is the name handwritten on the front inside cover along with a home and school address.

Note: I realize of course that I am not obligated to return the book to his children - just asking if it's a nice idea or a stupid idea. Thanks hive mind!
posted by Salvor Hardin to Human Relations (26 answers total)
It's a nice idea.

It's an awesome idea.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 12:23 PM on July 25, 2009

Would it be a nice gesture to contact one of his children and offer to send the book to him?

If you have the time and energy, I don't see why it wouldn't.

I feel like this could be a touchy situation, since I know little about these people or their former patriarch.

"Wanda, do you have any idea what it's like being English?"
posted by effbot at 12:25 PM on July 25, 2009

Response by poster: effbot: Heh - I had to google the reference, but I see your point :)
posted by Salvor Hardin at 12:27 PM on July 25, 2009

I would TOTALLY do this. I've tracked down descendants of the people in old family photographs, and they were psyched to get the pix.
posted by vickyverky at 12:40 PM on July 25, 2009

It would be a nice gesture, but it is entirely possible that they were the ones responsible for sending it to the recycling center in the first place.
posted by Good Brain at 12:43 PM on July 25, 2009 [8 favorites]

Well, to be the voice of dissent, I'd guess it ended up at the recycling center as part of the process of going through his stuff after he died. So probably, they didn't want it. I'd also guess it isn't worth anything much. I couldn't find this exact edition on ABE, but for instance the 36th edition is going for 12 dollars on ABE.
posted by advil at 12:44 PM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

I agree that his children and/or grandchildren probably got rid of it after he died. Seems a bit unlikely they'd want it back.
posted by pitseleh at 12:47 PM on July 25, 2009

Response by poster: advil, Good Brain, pitseleh: I was worrying about that sort of thing too, hence the askme question - I don't want to boomerang their father's stuff back to them after they went through the painful process of getting rid of it. However, as far as I can tell, none of their family live closer to me (Boston) than West Virginia. So I feel like chances are that this book was discarded a long time ago...but it's hard to tell. Even so, they may not be interested in having it back. Hmm...

3 for and 3 against...

PS: I just located his 86 year old brother, who was a professional golfer of some note (he's in the World Golf Hall of Fame). Interesting family.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 12:51 PM on July 25, 2009

One would assume that someone who knew the man went through his belongings after he died. If that's so, one would further assume that objects of monetary worth and sentimental value were kept.

You don't know for sure, of course, but it's likely this book was already considered and didn't make the cut.
posted by spaltavian at 12:59 PM on July 25, 2009

As memmentos go they probably kept the really intersting stuff. The golf trophies. The photos of him shaking hands with Gerald Ford. The sail fish he caught in the Gulf.

Unless he had written profusely throughout the book I wouldn't consider it a great remembrance. They probably have lot of other things with his signature, and they probably sent this to the recycle center for a reason.

As such, if it looks cool on your desk...
posted by wfrgms at 1:02 PM on July 25, 2009

But it's a sweet idea.
posted by wfrgms at 1:03 PM on July 25, 2009

none of their family live closer to me (Boston) than West Virginia.

It's where he lived that would matter for where the book was recycled...they would sort through the books before sending them elsewhere. (I'm speaking btw as someone who was on the periphery of one of these house-cleaning-out operations a few years ago, with _many_ old but mostly not valuable or meaningful books.)
posted by advil at 1:05 PM on July 25, 2009

Response by poster: Ok, I'm fairly convinced that it's unlikely to be greatly appreciated by family members. Thanks folks!

Plus I kinda want it myself :).

Check this out:

"The alpha-rays are thought to be positively charged particles, moving with a high velocity."


posted by Salvor Hardin at 1:07 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: wfrgms: Yeah, there isn't any writing except for on the inside front cover. Honestly, it hardly looks used! So, probably not of great sentimental value.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 1:08 PM on July 25, 2009

Response by poster: advil: Right you are. However, the obit says he died in Florida, though he apparently did live in NY state too.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 1:10 PM on July 25, 2009

Don't assume this book was recycled after his death. Lots of people downsize as they get older, especially if they're moving into assisted living or a nursing home. He himself may have tossed it a while ago which would make it even less likely his children would want it.
posted by tommasz at 1:25 PM on July 25, 2009

Enjoy the book. If it was a family Bible or something like that, I would try and find people who it might mean something to. But if people started bugging me about all the books they found at used book shops that had some link to me it would be really annoying.
posted by fifilaru at 3:25 PM on July 25, 2009

It's just a textbook, the family (if they care) will have more than enough mementoes without having the things they probably threw out returned to them. In my line of work I have come into some seemingly very special, personal things (diaries, photographs, paintings) and out of a sense of duty I used to always contact living relatives. None were interested, one threatened to call the police.
posted by fire&wings at 3:35 PM on July 25, 2009

It's not like a family photo or something; although I'm sure someone would appreciate the gesture, they might end up dumping it straight back into the trash after you've left.

Unless one of them happens to be a physicist or an engineer, or someone with a strong interest in engineering/physics history, what do you suppose they'll do with a CRC Handbook, particularly one from 1941? I think a lot of people might just regard it as an inconveniently-shaped doorstop at best.

Presumably, the book ended up at the recycling center because someone was cleaning out the guy's office or bookshelf and decided not to keep it. I'd bet you that's where it ends up again.

I guess it can't hurt to call them up, or send them a note or something, and offer them the book, sort of a right-of-first-refusal thing; but I wouldn't just package the book up and give it to them. They'd probably feel obligated to take it, they might not want it, and you — who actually would use the book (even if just as a desk ornament) — wouldn't have it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:56 PM on July 25, 2009

You know, given that you seem to be having fun working out this guy's entire life story, see if you can't find a descendant who is doing some sort of science.

I've got a forty plus years old CRC above my desk at work. The dissociation constant of acetic acid isn't exactly going anywhere though.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:01 PM on July 25, 2009

Give it to which of the grandchildren? A book isn't something that people can share ownership of easily.

I once had someone go to great (international) lengths to return something I had thrown out. It was very very sweet and kind of them. I didn't want to belittle their effort by saying "Thanks for all the effort, but it's garbage" so I smiled and said "thanks". I wish they would have kept it, based on the effort they went through it was clearly more valuable to them than to me.

Then again, there's no harm in asking.
posted by Ookseer at 8:02 PM on July 25, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses folks - I think I'll probably keep the book for now.

Kid Charlemagne's idea is interesting though. I personally would think it would be pretty cool to have a textbook that belonged to my grandfather (or great-grandfather).
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:07 AM on July 26, 2009

I have a friend who has a unique story. A stranger showed up at his parents' house with a picture of "their" gravestones... his parents (obviously) aren't dead. The gravestones belonged to a couple with the same first and last names as his parents. It was an awkward moment for everyone involved.
If he died, and the book showed up at a recycling center, I think that they probably didn't intend to keep the book. It's yours - go ahead and make it your showy desk piece.
posted by honeybee413 at 7:26 AM on July 26, 2009

Unless his kids/grandkids are into antique chemistry and physics it doubtless would interest them. I echo the folks who say they probably got rid of it in the first place. If it had something personal of his in the book, then by all means return that but a Chemistry Physics handbook? For the record I am an engineer and have had my share of fun with physics and chemistry but I wouldn't waster shelf space with this volume.
posted by JJ86 at 7:57 AM on July 26, 2009

Maybe you could just write the family a letter, explaining how you received the book, and the investigation you did, and let them know that you consider it an honor to have guardianship of the book, since it seemed to belong to such an interesting man. Out of respect, offer the book to them, but let them know how much you value it and why.

Yeah, it might be a little weird - but the story of this man is what´s so special here, and they might enjoy knowing that he has touched the life of a total stranger.

What have you got to lose?
posted by Locochona at 6:47 PM on July 27, 2009

if i were you, i'd contact them. when a loved one dies, all you have are memories and old stories. what a wonderful gift it would be to remind them that he's still living on in random ways. creating a new anecdote a year after he's passed away... if i were a family member of his, i would find that incredibly special.

making the world seem like a smaller place is never a bad idea.
posted by mapjad at 7:27 PM on August 1, 2009

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