By second grade, I was reading adult-level books. Now, looking back, they were mostly pulp-fiction trash, like murder mysteries and the like. I was into Martha Grimes, Agatha Christie, Lilian Jackson Braun, and Tony Hillerman. I also liked some of what other kids were reading, like Donald Sobol's "Encyclopedia Brown" series, but I didn't get into Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew for no explainable reason. My main staple of mystery came from squeaky, rotating a paperback rack at the Dolly Madison Public Library. Library books were my main source of reading material because I didn't have an allowance, and the only time my parents bought me books was the Scholastic order forms which came to school yearly, and in that case my mother paid for them.
One day, the mystery novels were moved somewhere, and in their place was a delightful collection of colorful covers with rocketships and stuff on them. Names like Asimov and Bradbury started to be among my reading list. One of the librarians was a woman with a serious speech impediment that made her spit when she talked like she had on the most restrictive dental retainer ever. Because I was not judgmental as other folks, she clung to my child-like attention. This arrangement worked out well because she introduced me to the Dewey Decimal system, which helped me find stuff on the occult I was interested in, and things "off the system," which I had noted was under "F" for "Fiction" at this library. The spines that said "F-Mys" became "F-Sci" when she saw I was getting science fiction paperbacks. They only had about a dozen titles, which I read pretty quickly.
"We have hardcovers in this corner," she told me. Science fiction came in hardback? Yes, yes it did. And one book so fascinated me as I read it over and over and over again for many years. I wish I could tell you it was some masterpiece of literature, like Tolkien (which I found, and still find dreadfully dull) or even McCaffery. But instead it was a book by Robert Silverberg called, "Planet of Death." Its story fascinated me. A man accused for a murder he did not commit is forced to flee the planet in the only ship leaving: a science vessel headed for a world where everything was horrible and carnivorous. There he finds out the guy who really committed the murder and hilarity ensues (not really).
This title would elude me for many years as an adult because it was buried under the pulp of its day. In the early 1990s, when I was on Usenet via UMD, I made a call to anyone who might have heard of this book. By that time, I only knew it had the word "Death" and "Planet" in it, and could not for the life of me remember who the author was. I remembered the cover had a kind of late 1960s abstract look to it. Some people assumed I meant the Harry Harrison's "Deathworld" series, but after searching that dead end, I assumed whatever I read and considered a childhood masterpiece was probably a flash-in-the-pan one hit wonder by some unknown.
About 9 years ago, I made the mention again in a FanTek list, and a search on it someone found my old Usenet post. And apparently, someone had answered the post years after I posted it. They had the right title and right cover, even. And it was not by an unknown, it was by a well known sci-fi great, Robert Silverberg.
"Yay!" I thought, and went to go find a copy. It was out of print. Not only that, it was so rare, most copies were selling for $150 or more. Bummer, dude. My childhood memories may not have a price, but it's lower than $150 per segment, I'll tell you that. I have paid up to $60 for some mildly-rare item that would fill in an emotional hole in my memory, but there was no way. I was told, via the Usenet post, that it was not even a good book and my childhood probably painted a brighter picture with passed time than the book was really worth. I meditated on this wisdom. Time passed.
An alert on half.com told me the book was available from time to time. It went as low as $60, but by the time I got the e-mail alert, it was already sold, or the buyer had a low enough rating that I'd never risk it.
Last December, I was searching for something else on Amazon.com, and wondered if the book ever went into a reprint. Amazon said a seller, with a high rating, was selling it for $20. It was a library in Oregon which was being honest to a fault, claiming it had standard library markings and a lot of wear. But for $20? I bought it. I didn't care if it was missing its cover, I just wanted ro read the damn thing again. It was sent 4th class, and I didn't get it until last week. I was surprised and delighted by what I saw.
Ripped from a part of my brain long sealed, it was like an exact copy from my memory. Down to the cellophane dust jacket protection, the library markings, and a sticker on the spine long forgotten: a rocket surrounded by a stylized atomic orbit. It was the hallmark of science fiction. As I opened the book, a very familiar smell hit me. There is an "old book smell" that is impossible to describe, but some of my readers will know what I am talking about. Maybe a little dry and musty. The pages are faded to a light vanilla that is almost tan near the edges where the paper is oxidizing. "This book," it seemed to say to my childhood, "will take you places." This was perfect. I would prefer this look over any "perfect first edition" between sealed acrylic plates. This book looked as I remembered it: worn and loved, distributed by freedom. Like the Internet.
And science fiction HAS taken me places. I owe so much to science fiction. It gave me a social life, friends, dreams, family, and goodness knows what else. Science fiction and its fandom has been singly the most important part of my social life. Connections it has given me has been filled with uncountable fortune. I met my wife at Balticon. Almost every friend I have I can trace to a convention I met them at. Even my foray into IT was because of a recommendation to AOL from the illustrator of my book I sold at conventions. I was taught UNIX and csh at the University of Maryland because of a guy I acted with at a comedy group I met because of FanTek. Even my spiritual path was influenced by fandom. And because of a book like this one, I was compelled to follow the path off the planet to stars and wonder.
So how is the book? It reads like junior fiction. It's not bad by any means, but in today's literature standards it's a little simple. Like comparing the show "Dragnet" to "CSI," they were from different eras and expected different audiences. But so far, I am gripped by the story; parts I had long forgotten light up like switch lights from a 1970s era computer powered up for the first time in 35 years. "Ah yes," goes some cobwebbed part of my mind, "I remember now." Associated neuron paths light up in response and bring back scraps of other memories.
That's why I had to write this all down so that maybe one of you can do the same thing with a book from your childhood.