Used Books that Changed Our Lives

Allow us to share our favorite used bookstore finds

| November-December 2003

We all know a good book can rock your world, but it's even more thrilling, and so much quicker, when someone else has underlined the important passages. That's just one of the joys of reading used books. All of us at Utne have done time as literary hunter-foragers, searching the shelves for the pulp equivalent of our next meal. Here are a few of our special finds.

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

The summer before sixth grade, I bought an old copy of Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s account of traveling through the Deep South in 1959 disguised as a black man. I got it at a library sale, one of those fill-a-bag-for-a-buck affairs that allow you to take some chances. I can't remember what else I came away with that day, but Griffin’s amazing, strange journey gripped me immediately.

The basic premise—a white man undergoes experimental skin treatments and emerges able to “pass” as a black man—sounds fairly absurd. But Griffin's daily journal of hitchhiking, walking, and taking buses from Mississippi to Georgia at the height of the civil rights era was nothing short of hypnotic to a young Indian girl living in a predominantly white Chicago suburb. His encounters revealed a culture of searing racism alongside gestures of stunning kindness.

Critics might label Griffin’s incognito a crude method of exploration, the literary equivalent of vaudevillian blackface. And, looking back at the book through the lens of graduate school seminars on postcolonial theory and identity politics, I might have to agree. But for a kid as yet unaware of those issues, Black Like Me was both a great read and a profound, lasting lesson in the complexities of human nature.
Anjula Razdan

Other Inquisitions by Jorge Luis Borges