Sep 5 2012 11:00am

The Book You Don’t Know You’re Looking For

This past weekend I was in Chicago for Chicon 7, this year’s World Science Fiction Convention. It’s a huge gathering of fans, it’s full of my friends, everyone is talking about books, it’s wonderful. There’s this sense of coming home to fandom you only get when you’re absolutely surrounded by people who are about the same things you do — a three hundred person convention is in a city, Worldcon is a city, and sometimes it feels like the shining city on the hill with spaceships taking off just over the horizon. Chicago is great too. You should be here, that’s all that’s lacking.

So, Worldcon has a dealers room, and the dealers room has people selling all kinds of things from dragons to spaceships, and also books. I was looking along one of the many stalls of second hand books, the same kind where last year I picked up a Poul Anderson I hadn’t read since I was fifteen. There were some volumes of Eric Frank Russell, and I was looking at them and I thought “Why are you even looking, Jo? It’s not like there’s going to be any new Eric Frank Russell. He’s been dead since before you knew he was alive.” And there was a new Eric Frank Russell. I’m not joking. It’s called The Mindwarpers, and I bought it but I haven’t read it yet. I am delighted to have it. But I had no idea I wanted it because I had no idea it existed.

The Mindwarpers isn’t a rare book. There are copies of it all over the internet, some of them for only a few dollars. But because I didn’t know it existed, I wasn’t searching for it, because you can’t search for what you don’t know exists. I thought I had read all of Russell and so I wasn’t looking for any more. I don’t do online searches for authors who died in 1978 and all of whose books I’m sure I’ve read. It’s that being sure that tripped me up. It’s actually possible that I have read this once from the library under the U.K. title of “With a Strange Device” which sounds vaguely familiar. I’ve certainly never owned it.

I found it through pure serendipity and the massive gravitational pull of a Worldcon dealers room. Physical books sitting next to each other. But I was looking more out of nostalgia than anything else. There’s Wasp. There’s dear old Next of Kin. Wait! What on Earth is that? How did I miss it? Or did it fall through a wormhole from another dimension? Or have I slid into an alternate reality like The Stone Pillow in Robert Charles Wilson’s Divided by Infinity?

I may read The Mindwarpers and write about it soon, if I don’t wake up soon and discover I’m actually still fifteen. But there’s something so enticing and happy-making about having a new Eric Frank Russell, which I never thought I’d have again, that I may keep it on the shelf unread until I get diagnosed with something terminal. That’ll give me something to look forward to!

It makes me wonder what other old books might be lurking out there. Back to the dealers room to scour the shelves with attention!

Have you ever experienced the joy of serendipitously finding a book you didn’t know you were looking for? Did it work out well for you?

Jo Walton is in Worldcon with a new Eric Frank Russell book. She’s taking the time to write to you even so, because she wants you to be happy too.

1. wiredog
you can't search for what you don't know exists

But you can! Lots of theoretical work has been done on just that, mostly (lately) related to storing and indexing data. I work in that area myself. Finding ways to make it easier for users to find things they wanted, but didn't know about.

I find books I didn't know I was looking for every time I go to Hole in the Wall books here in Falls Church VA.
2. helbel
I once walked into a library and saw the new Robin McKinley book. I thought she hadn't written anything in years (I didn't follow blogs back then, it hadn't appeared in the bookshops I frequented). I had no idea she was still an active writer, I stole The Blue Sword off my brother as a young teenager and then saved up Christmas and birthday money to buy The Hero and the Crown. I purchased backup copies of McKinley books from second hand bookshops in Hay on Wye, they certainly didn't seem to exist in the modern world.

Sunshine was so good I had to stop at each part and force myself to slow down and make the book last (not easy when you're a skim reader). It made me start to seek out other works I'd missed (but hadn't known I'd missed) and now I order in hardback.

So pleased I went to the library that day.
Thomas Simeroth
3. a smart guy
My mom brought me Dark Life by Kat Falls. That book managed to combine two of my loves, marine biology and dystopias. I would never have found it if my mom hadn't brought it home. It is now one of my favorite books, possibly my favorite.
David Betz
4. RDBetz
Many years ago I was browsing in a bookstore and came upon a paperback called The Ridlemaster of Hed by Patricia McKillip. I had enjoyed The Forgotten Beasts of Eld so I picked it up. When I got to the end and saw that it was a trilogy I immediately went out and bought the second book. I finished that one and realized to my horror that the third book was not out yet and I would have to wait several months to finish the story. This remains one of my favorite series and I reread it regularly.
5. Hactarcomp
This has happeend to me in the past with Ian McDonald. Before the internet I hit used bookstores looking for his works, having no idea whether or not I had read all of his out of print collection (at this point in time, I am pretty sure I have). Finding Kling Klang Katch, Sacrifice of Fools and Kirinya (there needs to be a third Chaga book, beyond Tendeloe's Story, damnit) were all incredible. In these internet days, I tend to know the full publication list of my favorite authors.
Clark Myers
6. ClarkEMyers
It's the things we know that aren't so that do trip us up so.

I wasn't looking for the last (published) Donald Hamilton/Matt Helm because in my arrogance I took it for granted I'd know if another entry in the series existed. A sad commentary on something to know that earlier books in the series were printed in the millions; the last published in the thousands and the last unpublished remains unpublished.

There was a used but totally new to me big book by Douglas R. Hofstadter for a pocket change price (both hard cover and paperback copies) on the shelf just last week so I bought the hardcover. Not a rarity and a living author; more testimony to the notion that the circles I move in today don't alert me as they once did.

Books I haven't reached yet toward the bottom of my to be read pile are showing their age - displayed as vintage on the used book shelves. I have no shortage of books to be read.

I still hope a Schmitz version of The Karres Ventures will turn up. Like the Goldsborough Nero Wolfe the continuations by others show skill but lack some element of fortune smiling. Stumbling on the very first actually written by the name on the cover story of the Saint was amusing but equally a disappointing read.

I've found it to be a melancholy pleasure to find the previously unknown to me works in hardcopy at a pocket change price for too often the book languishes in well deserved obscurity. The internet has mostly made browsing the shelves a melancholy pleasure overall as I now know at least price and availability of the books I really expect to care about.
7. Cat
The Dominators actually doesn't exist as a novel yet as Gordon, son of the author, is currently taking the various drafts and reMs of notes to hopefully create an actual novel. That's why Titan Books in the UK didn't publish it when they reprinted the other books in the series.
Mike Cross
11. MikeCross
Yes, it's happened to me a few times, but I can't think of a specifiic example. It has mostly turned out well though, I'm sure.

However your discovery may not be one of these as it is a variant title of With A Strange Device, which you may have already read. For confirmation see the online SF Encyclopaedia's EFR entry. I tried to post a URL but the post disappeared (3 times).
David Goldfarb
12. David_Goldfarb
Back in 1980 I picked up the Pocket Books reprint of Chester Anderson's The Butterfly Kid and loved it. Then in a used book store I came unexpectedly across Michael Kurland's The Unicorn Girl, billed on the cover as a sequel. I had no idea a sequel existed.

It was a huge disappointment, unfortunately. I had various expectations and hopes for the sequel to The Butterfly Kid, and The Unicorn Girl really didn't deliver on any of them. I was able to re-read it many years later with different expectations, and discovered that it was a nice enough novel, but one really only tangentially related to the first book.
Beth Friedman
13. carbonel
When I was in high school, I read (and loved) one of Zenna Henderson's People stories ("Gilead") in an Asimov anthology, Tomorrow's Children. Then, not too long after, I encountered "Ararat" somewhere else (don't remember where), and had the brilliant thought that clearly these two wonderful stories were connected, and maybe there were more of them collected somewhere.

I planned to go to the local library and check the card catolog, or if that failed, ask a reference librarian, but just to cover all bases, I checked the high school's card catalog. Niles West had a decent SF collection -- better, in some ways, than the local library's. And sure enough, there was a listing for The People: No Different Flesh. I probably broke a speed record getting to the actual shelves, where the blue hardcover was sitting there waiting for me.

It was some time before I was able to get copies of Zenna Henderson's other three books, but finding that first one was one my my magic moments.
14. Theophylact
Isn't The Mindwarpers the same as Three to Conquer ("Call Him Dead" in the Astounding serial version)?
Alan Brown
16. AlanBrown
My dad was a packrat, so the basement in the house where I grew up was a fascinating place, full of artifacts of days gone by. And one summer (I think the one between third and fourth grade), I found a box full of books. Tom Swift, Bomba the Jungle Boy, Don Sturdy, The Great Marvel Series. Tales of scientific invention, mysterious jungles, lost cities, interplanetary journeys--quite a find! To this day, the musty smell of old books takes me back to that fateful moment, and the summer I learned to read, not just to learn, but for fun.
17. JamesPadraicR
Not quite the same, but last January at the local con, I came across a book I'd been looking for, for a few years: The Indians Won by Martin Cruz Smith. Haven't read it yet, and since it hasn't been reprinted I suspect it might not be too great. I'll get to it eventually--a problem with buying books faster than you can read them.
Meanwhile, just a few feet away, Charlie Stross was looking over the books. I hadn't worked up the nerve to talk to him (got over that the next day), but heard him commenting on it not being practical to shlep a bunch of books around the country, and back home.
Kristen Templet
18. SF_Fangirl
In days the days before the internet, I cannot begin to describe my glee when I discovered Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold on a shelf in Waldenbooks. I had read Barrayar and at least one of her Vorkosigan saga short stories in Analog, but for some reason I was under the mistaken impression that despite all the hints of what went before in Barrayar that the prequel wasn't written/published. So happy.

Several years later I was describe as chortaling with glee with I found more of the series for sale in a used book store. By that time I knew they existed but it was still the early days of the Internet when you couldn't buy used books online anywhere so you had to luck upon anything not new.

Since then my classics search list grew and then shrank. I now have managed to find nearly all the classics I have a burning desire to read. Used book stores are less fun now.

@17 a problem with buying books faster than you can read them. I have that same problem caused mostly by used book stores. I honestlu haven't bought a book in about a year (I have a super awesome library system), but I still have a three shelves of books to read. I am tending towards the library books and library ebooks because my books will go with me when I move and my library system will not. :( Everyone deserves access to such a great library system. But I need to work in a few personally owned books every now and again to make progress on my to-read-list. (Wasp in on those shelves thanks to Jo and attempt to trade in some books last before before I thought I was going to move.)
Clark Myers
19. ClarkEMyers
AKICIF - Why does the cover at the link (not the post) look so familiar yet not associated with this particular title?

Even when folks know something is out there the huckster's room at a big con can bring great joy. I remember A.J.'s pleasure in the pre 'net days at finding first serial publication of one of his own that he no longer had a copy of.

#14 No, some similarities as being sort of a variant on police procedurals and for all I know some recycled thoughts but nowhere near the same work.

As noted elsewhere the cover at the link is particularly well chosen to have nothing at all in common with the story in the book and yet to appeal to fans of the author - reminds me of shelving Glide Path as new SF by Clarke to snare the unwary - who may well enjoy the experience just the same.
Josh Storey
20. Soless
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman. Right around the time the novel was first released, I walked into my local Barnes and Noble to find a signed copy sitting on the main island display. At that point, I was under the impression that I had never read anything by Gaiman, but I vaguely remembered seeing a commercial for Neverwhere, so I picked it up on a whim.

12 years, American Gods, and all of Sandman later and its still one of the prized pieces in my library.

Also, for the record, I'd read and loved Good Omens the year before but hadn't realized Mr. Gaiman had co-wrote it.
Martin McCallion
21. devilgate
I'm just intrigued by this "the library under the U.K." idea. I live in the UK, and I didn't know we had a library under us.

Still, with the Olympics this year and Worldcon two years from now, anything's possible.
22. Framework4
That is how I became an SF reader. I was a kid reading Hardy Boys novels and my mother picked up some at a swap meet. Along with it she picked up a Tom Corbett Space Cadet book. I liked that world and when to the local library and found Heinlein's Space Cadet. Of course that got me hooked. The next year Star Trek came on the air. Years later I was delighted to learn that TV show and books were based, in part, on Heinlein's novel.
23. Laragrey
Some of my favorite books were pick-ups at the used bookstore, where I went on faith, intuition, and appreciating the cover art. That's how I discovered Lynn Flewelling's Nightrunner series, Nick O'Donohoe's Crossroads trilogy, Sherryl Jordan's Winter of Fire, and Lisa Mason's Summer of Love. You just never know.
24. vilstef
Then there's the problem of knowing something exists and not being able to get it. In my early con days, I hung out at a number of cons and the late, very missed Bob Tucker who was bemoaning the lack of copies of some of his own books. I have been described as a great book scrounger, and in the following year, I turned up about 10 of his books which I didn't have and about 2 dozen duplicates of titles I did have. I gave the bag of duplicates to Bob and I don't think he would've been much happier if I'd given him the keys to the Jim Beam distillery.
25. Action Kate
Would you believe "Dig Allen, Space Explorer"? I had #2 and #5, and while looking for 1, 3, and 4, I found out there were 6 total.

Also, CE Murphy keeps going with the Walker Papers series, and Patricia Briggs continues to write Mercy Thompson and Alpha/Omega books. All of which make me jump up and down with glee.
26. Mutantalbinocrocodile
Off topic, but in case Jo Walton is reading comments, big congrats on a much-deserved Hugo win. Only just finished Among Others, was so pleased to see the voters agree with me.
Jo Walton
27. bluejo
I always read comments! And I'm absolutely thrilled, of course.

These days I mostly know about forthcoming genre books and am waiting for them and it's the mainstream writers I read whose new work surprises me.
Pamela Adams
28. PamAdams
A used bookstand at my local farmer's market had a hard-cover 'book-club without the dust jacket' looking book with a cute drawing on the spine. I picked it up, and there was another line drawing on the frontispiece. Cutting to the chase, it was High Times, a comic mainstream novel published in 1944. I adored it!

I then went to Google to find out more and my university library and abebooks to order all of her other work.
Beth Mitcham
29. bethmitcham
I just had this experience with the kidlit author Keith Robertson. I had read and liked his stories about Henry Reed, but I thought that was all he wrote. On my unread bookcase I had a book called Three Stuffed Owls, which I thought was part of the Three Investigators series, but I hadn't gotten around to reading it.

This summer I made a concentrated effort to read through that shelf, and discovered that this book was by the author that I had loved as a child. And I discovered that this old favorite author had written many more books than I knew of. Now I've got another name to check in my used book browsing.
Matthew Keeley
30. keele864
If I really like an author, I usually do a little research on their work, so I'm not usually shocked by new (to me) works by old favorites. I almost wish I could drop my "investigating" habit, but I think it may be too well-ingrained to change.

For me the exciting discoveries usually come from finding a long-desired, but scarce or expensive, item reasonably priced. The one used bookstore in my town, for example, recently bought a huge load of books from an avid sf fan. When I checked the new arrivals, I almost danced to see three R.A. Lafferty books, an obscure Conan Doyle novel, and some out-of-print Jack Vance. I'm afraid I rather cleaned out that collection...

And congrats to Jo on the Hugo!
31. Xiao Zhuang
I didn't know a book called 'The Indians Won' existed! Now I definitely want to read it, thanks for bringing it to my attention.
32. filkferengi
Sometimes it's the books you find for someone else.

Once in college, I was browsing the new books section of the library, when I came across a book I thought my mom would like. She was absolutely thrilled, because it was Elizabeth Peters' _Lion In The Valley_. She was so excited, I read it too, & have loved the series ever since.
33. John O'Neill
Hi Jo,

Well, this is a delightful surprise. I sold you that book at Worldcon. It was at the Black Gate booth, where I was also selling vintage paperbacks (because we haven't published enough issues of BG to cover a table yet).

I only remember, to be honest, because you made such a fuss when you bought it. And because I found a SECOND Eric Frank Russell book 30 minutes later, and kicked myself for not pointing it out to you. The second book was even harder to find, I think: LIKE NOTHING ON EARTH, a 1986 paperback from Mandarin:

You came by the booth again after your Hugo win on Monday, but by then I'd forgotten all about Eric Frank Russell. Next time I see you, I'll remember!
Jo Walton
34. bluejo
John: Thanks, but I have Like Nothing On Earth. I've had it since, well, probably 1986.
Nancy Lebovitz
35. NancyLebovitz
I got and read a copy of Mindwarpers.

It's far from Russell's best, but it's got some good eery stuff when no one knows what's going on. Should there be a category of books where the problem is more interesting than the solution?

Afaik, it's from the era when there was a lot of sf about amnesia.

Other than that, there's a sixty cent ham sandwich.
36. Mike Schilling
The best bridge book ever (by consensus and, more important, by my opinion) is S.J. Simon's Why You Lose at Bridge. I first read it when I was about 12, and over the years I've had several paperback copies, all of which were the same edition with cheap, glued-in pages and which eventually fell apart from re-reading. I was in a used bookstore once, looking for the latest replacement, when I found another Simon book I'd never heard of: Cut For Partners, which is the direct sequel.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment