Tuesday, February 23, 2010


My local grocery store has a paperback book rack that I’d never really noticed before. This time I noticed it and brushed by, supercilious nose in the air. What literary nourishment could I possibly find at Nelsons County Market? But then I had a flashback – to a time when I did, indeed, find a number of interesting books displayed in just this kind of rack.

When I was a senior in high school, I did not disdain such displays. Miss Zamow, my A.P. English teacher, had ignited an interest in reading, and whenever I was in the drug store in Baken Park (Rapid City’s first strip mall – this was 1964, it had to have been one of the first strip malls in the country), I’d spend long minutes twirling the plastic tower of books, hoping to find something as engaging as “Return of the Native” – our most recent A.P. assignment.  (Although I’ve tried in vain to convince my daughters that I was not, in fact, a nerd in high school, they’ve, alas, seen the class photos. I’m afraid I’ll have to admit that the best way to picture this scene is to imagine that kid from Napoleon Dynamite listlessly watching the books whirl by on the rotating rack.) Anyway, it is at that very rack that I discovered Solzenhitsyn’s “One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Who knew! A world classic at Rexall.

Later, a spin of the same carousel brought forth “The Lord of the Flies,” then (speaking of spinning carousels), Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” (No one evokes a midwestern boys' world like Ray Bradbury.)

After my first year of college I had a job in a small town in far northeastern South Dakota. In another drug store at another plastic rack I picked up a book called “The Lord of the Rings” because the title reminded me of that other “Lord” book that I had recently read. I took it back to my room, opened it, and didn't close it until I got to the end, saw with panic that it "continued in Book Two," jumped into my car, and zoomed almost frantically among the other small towns of that quadrant of South Dakota until, on another rack in some other corner pharmacy, I finally came upon “The Two Towers.” (A week later the cover headline on Time Magazine was “Lord of the Rings Sweeps the Nation’s Campuses.” Thus, I’ve always taken credit for being the American discoverer of J.R.R. Tolkien.)

A few years later, visiting my wife’s farm home, we drove into town on some errands. Another small town, yet another Rexall Drug Store. This time it was the fat paperback edition of “Lonesome Dove.” I had never heard of it or Larry McMurtry – so once again a good read was accompanied by the joy of discovery.

I could go on. Actually, I couldn’t. From that time on I graduated to the world of funky neighborhood book shops, Barnes and Noble, and, now, Amazon – leaving the paperback racks circling backward into the past.  But I wonder? Have I been missing something? Just when I’ve discovered Whole Foods, the Atlantic food editor is recommending the produce and groceries of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart! Should I, in fact, be looking among the paperbound spy thrillers and bodice-rippers next to the film department at Walgreens to find (or even discover!) the next great contribution to world lit?

It would be a good ending for this essay if I could report that I went back to that grocery store book display and found “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” or “The Sonnets of John Donne: A New Interpretation.” But I didn’t. I didn’t go back, that is. But next time I walk by, I’m going to pause … and look… hopefully….


Joseph said...

Great reminder of the power of discovering books unlooked for. I loved the $4.99 tables at the former RiverCity Books in Northfield. Found some gems there. As for "Lonesome Dove" . . . one of the all time greats.

ronr said...

"paperback racks spinning backwards" is that a reference to merry go rounds spinning backwards?