While browsing the cheap paperback racks (the kind that revolve) at my favorite place, Half Price Books, I ran across this cheap dime-novel reissue of To Kill A Mockingbird which Warner Books put out around the year that I was born. I was struck by the unassuming nature of the presentation. Oh, sure, it’s got its Pulitzer badge on display, and the “best of the year” blurb from the Times, but look at it. It’s a big blank yellow cover! No picture, not even a clip-art generic, much less any kind of fluffing. It looks like the world’s worst Grisham reprint, or the old kind of third-rate self-helper you’d find on a rear table at the annual church rummage sale.
This, to me, is an important idea. That you might, as someone who didn’t yet know the difference, just as likely pick up To Kill A Mockingbird as anything at the rummage sale, or the used bookstore, or the library. And who doesn’t yet know the difference? A kid. A kid was just as likely, in the age of random cheap paperbacks and in today’s age wherever they are found, to pick up a grand, life-changing American classic as anything, through random exploration.
I used to. When I was a kid I browsed and selected randomly, indiscriminately, at the library and at used bookstores. We couldn’t afford the ordered categorization of new-book stores and this forced an eclectic exploration that probably played a role in making who I am. One day in elementary school I picked up The Giver on a lark at the Goodwill and my whole world shifted. It was years before I realized that lots of people loved The Giver, that it was a commonly assigned novel in schools. I always thought it was my book.
Books have a peculiar ability to become intimate. Because we experience the stories in books alone (even in a crowded room), and the relationship between us and the pictures and ideas and people on the page involves a lot of our own imagination and history and experience, readings become unique to us in a way other things don’t. We feel after reading a great book that we’ve been “let in,” made different, changed, in a personal way, get something that other people don’t.
J.K. Rowling talked about a major midnight release of a Harry Potter book where she was signing and this one fan, a little girl, who was crying upset at the realization that there were so many other fans who claimed to love it as much as she did – to her, Harry Potter was her book. And it was.
If there’s one thing I’ll miss about the wild, disorganized, un-digital world of books that was, it will be the stumbling – a small pair of eyes and hands among towering stacks – upon unassuming worn covers, behind each of which might live a book that would become irrevocably ours, and would by changing us unexpectedly and eternally make us its. But that’s as much a wish to for childhood wonder as anything; and efficiency and organization, as a way of the world, always erase a little bit of slipshod magic. Ultimately, progress exposes more kids to books, not less, even if we do miss the old ways.
Alongside the 1$ Mockingbird was an equally old paperback issue of Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent (that one did have a vaguely spy-novel-esque drawing on it which, as anyone who’s read the book knows, would completely disappoint anyone who picked it up). I put that one back, between some Tolkien and another Ian Fleming, leaving it to fate what would become of the next child who’d stumble on that shelf.