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Deck the halls with books by Dickens

Some of the 1,000 editions of “A Christmas Carol” amassed by Timothy Kenny of Lancaster.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

LANCASTER — This time of year tends to be very busy for Timothy and Deborah Kenny.

The couple enjoys decking the halls of their sprawling Victorian, which is also Timothy’s family homestead. Bright lights and multiple themed trees brighten every room.

In fact the reputation of the house is such that the pair periodically opens it up for visits by charity organizations and the elderly.

One of the highlights of the tour tends to be a little room with six floor-to-ceiling bookshelves packed with more than 1,000 separate editions of Charles Dickens’s classic “A Christmas Carol.”

“It’s an amazing collection,” says Alexandra Turner, a longtime friend of the Kennys. “I really didn’t appreciate it until I saw the full display,” which includes colorful Dickens-themed knickknacks and figurines mingled with the books, and “A Christmas Carol’’-themed quilt on the wall.


The tale behind Tim Kenny’s obsession is as surprising as the collection itself.

He grew up loving “A Christmas Carol.’’ Family members even took to calling him Tiny Tim after the book’s most endearing character. But Kenny admits that for years he knew the story only from the movies.

“I collected a number of versions on videotape,” he says. “Then one day my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, Debbie, made the comment, ‘You know that’s also a book, don’t you?’ ”

So at age 30, he bought and read his first copy. “It was magical,” he says. “It really had an impact on me. It was so vivid. Great characters. The movies pale in comparison.”

With that, he says, “I wondered: How many editions are there out there?” He started his collection, buying seven different ones at the New England Mobile Book Fair.

That was 24 years ago. Now, at 54, he’s purchased every edition he could find, including one from the original 1843 press run overseen by Dickens himself — who had four children at the time (he and his wife would eventually have 10) and was desperate for money.


This year, Kenny hit the 1,000-volume mark.

“The book’s been out of copyright for 200 years,” he says, ”so every year there are new editions.” He collects them at the rate of about 40 a year — hardcover or paperback, new or used, adult or children’s, English or foreign language, even comic books. Not long ago, he came upon an elaborate pop-up version and downloaded a Twitter version that tells the story in emojis and text bubbles.

Generations of readers have embraced “A Christmas Carol” as a kind of parable of personal transformation. Kenny’s day job is vice president of workplace culture at Black Duck Software in Burlington. He says the book has actually influenced his management style. He cites what was said of old Fezziwig in the novel: “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy, to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.”

The book has also transformed him into a kind of antiquarian geek, sorting and cataloguing his acquisitions on a database. He does this seated at a roll-top desk squeezed into the same cozy room containing all the books. The search for new additions goes on year round — in bookstores, on the Internet, at auctions, and library sales. Some copies are in mint condition, others dinged up, dog-eared, or scrawled with marginalia or dedications.


“I’ve pulled 50-cent copies out of old barns,” he says. “They’d be all musty and smelly.”

But they’re all good, so far as Kenny is concerned. “Each has a different character,” he says.

“I’m to blame for this,” jokes Deborah Kenny, smiling over her husband’s obsession that began with her reading suggestion years ago. “But I love it too,” she says. “The themes of charity, social responsibility, and celebration are meaningful and timeless.”

Topping Tim Kenny’s list of “timeless” treasures is that first edition.

“It took a number of years,” he says, “but I finally found a copy in a little bookstore in Yarmouth, Maine, the weekend of the Yarmouth Clam Festival.”

He’s mum on the cost but says buying it in person was a relative bargain over mail-order prices. (Prices for a sampling of first editions on the AbeBooks.com started around $10,000.) Kenny’s is among the 6,000 copies from London publisher Chapman and Hall that went on sale Dec. 19, 1843 and quickly sold out.

“It has green end papers,” says Kenny, delicately opening his copy for inspection. “Dickens detested that because they got very mottled. He changed it immediately to yellow end papers.”

The combined collection tells a story of its own. “It’s a virtual history of publishing since 1843,” Kenny says. Twentieth-century illustrators brought Dickens’s vision to life, be it the gaiety of Fezziwig’s ball, the squalor of London streets, the morose interior of Scrooge’s counting house, or Scrooge’s tormented interaction with the ghosts in the bedroom and burial ground.


Foreign editions depict the three spirits in fascinating ways.

“The first one that jumped out at me was the Russian version,” Kenny says. “They’re not these Victorian people. They’re all trolls out of Russian mythology.”

The Korean Ghost of Christmas Present is a kind of a griffin-like monster, half eagle with sharp talons.

And some of the memorable phrases get lost in translation. For instance, according to Kenny, Scrooge’s sour retort “Bah! Humbug!” becomes “What foolishness!” in French and “What nonsense!” in Dutch. Tiny Tim’s benediction, “God bless us, everyone!” translates as “God bless us all!” in a Spanish edition.

But Kenny says the substance of this tale by a writer who came from a financially beleaguered family and wrote memorably about the poor easily crosses borders: A greedy, embittered, self-isolated man, prodded by the spirit world, rejoins humanity, and finds great joy. “It’s a book that says indifference is the real problem,” says Kenny. “And I think that’s why people think the book saved Christmas,” an assessment that may be something of an overstatement. The tale is, however, widely credited with influencing the Victorian revival of the Christmas celebration and the way it’s still marked today.

Meanwhile Kenny’s hunting for a copy from Philadelphia publisher Carey and Hart dated 1844. It’s the edition that brought the story to American shores.

“I think It’s wonderful that he’s put the collection together,” says Turner. “I hope he continues to show it and that it’s preserved.”


Greg Wayland formerly reported for New England Cable News and can be heard on WBUR-FM.