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.
Other Inquisitions by Jorge Luis Borges
In some small towns, there’s a type of bookstore for which the word modest is practically an overstatement. In a storefront on a fading downtown street, somebody pulls together a dusty stock of dog-eared paperbacks–heavy on mystery, science fiction, and romances–and calls the result something like The Paperback Exchange. I always explore these bottom-end places, because in one of them–a basement below a drugstore in Ottumwa, Iowa–I bought a book that I have loved for 35 years. My fragile Washington Square Press paperback of Jorge Luis Borges’ essays called Other Inquisitions only cost 60 cents when it was new back in 1967; I think I paid a dime for it.
By the time I’d finished Borges’ brilliant, playful, erudite, and mock-erudite discussions of the nature of time, the greatness of Robert Louis Stevenson, and the evolution of philosophical metaphors, I’d morphed from a nerdy 16-year-old history-head into someone who was ready to fall in love with the power of the imagination. I’ve never stopped thanking the great Argentine fabulist, or the folks, whoever they were, who ran that long-gone paperback exchange. (And discovering a work by Borges in an anonymous little bookstore in the hinterland always seemed to me a pretty good premise for a Borges story.)
Memoirs of Hecate County by Edmund Wilson
I took a long trip across the country one summer, reading, or at least starting, several books along the way. In Boston I picked up Melville’s Moby Dick but jumped ship before I got to the white whale. The same thing happened with the Dostoyevsky novel I bought in Boulder. Neither fit my mood. In a tiny store south of Tucson, I stumbled on an early 1960s edition of critic Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County and knew I’d found my poison.
It was the novella between the book’s shorter pieces that captivated me. First published back in the ’40s, “The Princess with the Golden Hair” is a story of sex and class told by a narrator a lot like Wilson himself, a writer seeing two women, one wealthy, the other a daughter of poor immigrants. Wilson’s account of life in midcentury New York is full of his sharp intelligence and utterly uncorrupted by the dubious modern dictum that good fiction must be shown, not told. It confirmed my growing suspicion that, whatever the plot, whoever the characters, the best novels are really about the minds that create them. Their authors haunt them like poltergeists whispering the same secret theme: I’m here! And for a few nights in the desert, Wilson was.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Since the mid-’70s, Dubuque, Iowa, has been home to a used-book store run by the Tri-State Independent Blind Society. When I was a kid, the shop inhabited part of a red brick structure built as a YMCA more than half a century earlier. Years later it was tucked into the side of an old industrial building across from a lumberyard, and more recently set on the town’s western edge in the shell of a supermarket.
My shelves are full of books stamped with the society’s name and phone number. Some I’ve read, while others wait for the right time. One of them, a 75-cent paperback edition of Henry David Thoreau’s The Variorum Walden and The Variorum Civil Disobedience, sat unopened for decades until last year. (A variorum edition includes notes on the text, in this case by the author as well as others.) Then something compelled me to read the essay “Civil Disobedience,” and from this initial plunge I dove deeper into the world of Thoreau–Walden, Cape Cod, The Maine Woods, excerpts from journals and speeches, a biography, and more–living waters in which I still swim.
The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig
The most significant books in my life usually arrive in the most understated ways. One book slipped onto my desk caused me to quit a job. Another passed across a bus aisle prompted me to cross an ocean. I’m not sure how I ended up with a tattered copy of The Endless Steppe. I was 11 years old, so it could have come from a school sale, or maybe a friend. But The Endless Steppe profoundly changed the way I saw the world and helped to shape my sense of empathy.
First published in 1968, this intimate memoir–the first I’d ever read, and the first many young people probably encounter, as it often appears today on school reading lists — tells the story of Hautzig’s childhood. World War II arrived in her idyllic Polish village when she was young, forcing her and her family to Siberia. The exquisitely drawn details of her life there fascinated me. It was an early exposure to the fact that human beings treat each other in ways that can be cruel as well as beautiful. I must have read it four or five times over a few months, and each time deepened my desire to explore and understand the many worlds I now knew were waiting beyond my own.