Jan 1 2014 12:00pm

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

The Mindwarpers Eric Frank RussellI was in Chicago for Chicon 7, the World Science Fiction Convention in 2012. 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, 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?


This article originally appeared September 5, 2012 on as part of our Jo Walton Reads series.

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. LaurenJ
This happens to me relatively frequently, especially with authors I read when I was younger, when the library's own collection seemed like the effective bounds of the literary earth. I would, years later, find sequels, in particular, I'd been utterly unaware of. Or Ira Levin--I grew up hearing about Rosemary's Baby, The Boys from Brazil, The Stepford Wives, and Sliver, and reading them when I encounered them, but it wasn't until Tor that I realized I'd missed the SF This Perfect Day. I knew Levin wasn't especially prolific, so I'd never thought to look for more. My sister immediately bought it for my birthday.
2. Tanya Beaton
This happens to me once in a while when I go into a used book store. It's one of my favourite things, especially when I'm not looking for anything in particular. Spotting that Ursula K. Leguin short story in an anthology, spying an Orson Scott Card novel I don't have yet, securing another edition of Jane Eyre... adds a little bit of happy to an already enjoyable trip.
Ted Boone
3. tedboone
On vacation in Belize, left on the bookshelf of our casita, was an Iain M. Banks novel I didn't know existed. The Algebraist. Brilliant book that I probably would have read eventually, but serendipidous for being available, inexplicably, thousands of miles from home right at the moment I was looking for a new book to read.
4. Graham Warnken
I was browsing my library's shelves once upon a time and came across a book called Infoquake. It's the novel that first really got me into science fiction, the first of a cyberpunk trilogy that's utterly brilliant. So glad I stumbled across it. Later, in a used-book store, I came across a tiny hardcover, available for the low price of $1, called Apathy and Other Small Victories—it remains the funniest novel I've ever read.
5. LaraGrey
My old used bookstore was the best place for that. I would never have picked up Nick O'Donohoe's The Magic and the Healing, Sherryl Jordan's Winter of Fire, or Connie Willis' Doomsday Book if I hadn't been browsing their shelves and contemplating cover art.
Brian R
6. Mayhem
I completely agree - the find of that rare title you didn't even know existed is truly one of the delights of the second hand book shop. That, and the musty smell, which always brings back memories of hunting through boxes of romance trash for the few hints of SF&F when I first started buying books
Bruce Arthurs
7. bruce-arthurs
Back in my teens, when I was first really getting into science fiction, the go-to used bookstore in Phoenix, AZ, was Al's Used Books. Al's was in a shabby building in a bad part of town with bad parking. But it was a big storefront; where the average used-book bookstore held maybe 10,000 or so books, Al's held 300,000. The space inside, except for narrow aisles, was completely filled with bookcases, tables, and floor-to-high-ceiling shelves on the walls. There were scattered fluorescent lights on the ceiling, but most illumination came from the big windows at the front of the store. The floors were bare concrete, no tile or carpet. If you'd asked for a cup of coffee there, they would have called the police to report the lunatic that had wandered into the store.

If you were looking for a specific title, Al's wasn't where you wanted to go. The proprietors sorted books by genre and that was it; books to be shelved were shoved into the closest available space in that genre section. When you went book-hunting at Al's, you hunted.

But for someone still fairly new to SF, looking thru those shelves and shelves and shelves of science-fiction paperbacks (hardcovers were a fairly small minority of the available selection) was kind of wonderful. Because you could go into Al's with two or three titles in mind to look for, and by the time you staggered up to the cash register several hours later you'd have made a couple of dozen serendipitous discoveries you hadn't known you wanted.

(This was in the late 60's/early 70's, long enough ago that you could eventually see almost every paperback since the start of paperback publishing a few decades earlier pass thru Al's. If not on one trip, then possibly on the next few trips there.)

I eventually got out of the (inconvenient) habit of going to Al's, shifting to newer and newer books as I got older. But I still held fond memories of the many books I'd discovered there. So it was still a shock when, sometime in the 80's, I happened to be back in that bad neighborhood on other business... and saw the storefront where Al's had been was now selling used appliances instead of used books. (Part of that shock was because I wasn't the only local SF fan who'd been a regular customer of Al's, and I would kind of have expected to hear of Al's closing a lot earlier.)
Alan Brown
8. AlanBrown
My biggest unknown books by a famous author were when I discovered "The Lost World" by Arthur Conan Doyle. And then "The White Company." And discovered that Holmes and Watson were far from the only great characters he had created!
9. SYAgnon
I like this piece, and I especially identify with the comments underneath about used bookstores. I've always loved browsing in used bookstores for this reason. Since I especially like short stories, I've always liked dipping into anthologies, even--and especially--old ones from the 50s, 60s and 70s, in the hope of finding an interesting story or author that/whom I didn't know existed.

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