Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Give me a book that will change my life."

“Give me a book,” he said, “that will change my life.”

He was a student at one of the local colleges, in his junior year (that’s a guess). I’m not sure of his major, although he did tend to gravitate to the psychology and philosophy shelves. He’d been in the shop before. Not really a regular, but I do remember seeing him once or twice.

And today he seemed to be on a bit of a mission.

“I need to get motivated. What I am doing now isn’t working, and I need to find something else that will move me into a different direction.”

“So give me a book that will change my life.”

That’s asking rather a lot from a book. But he was serious, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

Maybe I should have handed him a treatise on differing philosophic or theological world-views. Maybe I should have given him something on Einstein or Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Or The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran; that’s a big one. Or just told him to read almost anything by Shakespeare. But I didn’t.

Nor did I ask him a lot of questions; maybe I should have. Instead, a vision of another college junior looking to change directions flashed into my head.

Suddenly it was 1975 again. That was my third year in a little private college, and perhaps the most confusing year of my life. Many of the universal truths that I had simply accepted up to that point somehow had dissipated. Unfortunately, nothing had as yet appeared to take their place.

So I was looking for a change of direction at that point, too. It wasn’t a panic thing, but it was certainly a quest.

But not a quest for someone else’s answers. I was looking for my own. I didn’t want anyone to tell me what to think or what to do, and I honestly didn’t want to know what someone else had come up with. This was something I really wanted to figure it out myself.

And it all revolved around a simple, yet somehow eloquent, question: “Huh?” That pretty much fit every situation where I found myself.

So, I will admit: I was projecting my own quest upon this earnest young man. For all I know, he just wanted instructions for a better way to do his laundry. That’s not what he got.

Instead, we went to the Science Fiction section and I handed him a book that I wish someone had handed to me.

Good science fiction starts with an absurd premise (obviously, we cannot travel between the stars). But if you accept that premise, everything that happens afterward flows naturally (if we could travel between the stars…what would we find? Who would we find?).

What is important about science fiction is not the story. Rather, what is important is the very act of accepting the absurd, for this act of acceptance requires a profound suspense of disbelief.

More than that, it requires non-linear thinking. Thoughts and ideas and concepts racing between stars or bouncing off, and perhaps breaking, the boundaries of space and time. New concepts of what is, and is not, and what could be, real. New constructs; new ways of evaluating our own space and time.

And it is precisely non-linear thinking that my young customer was seeking (although he may not have realized it). I wasn’t about to give him a new direction; he probably would have rejected, wisely, anything along those lines that I had suggested. Instead, I was going to give him a new way of finding his own direction.

I handed him Time Enough For Love by Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein was probably the best who have written in this genre, and this was (in my opinion) his best work. (I won’t tell you the plot. But I will say that if you don’t know it, I envy you for what you have yet to discover.)

If all goes well, he may have just spent the best $3.50 of his life.

On the other hand, he no longer has change to do his laundry.

Either way, his life just changed. That's my job.


  1. I applaud your choice. There are the doubters out there who say that science fiction is fluff that adds only mindless entertainment (if entertainment at all) to the party of life, but I personally would argue that such naysayers have never read Robert A. Heinlein.

  2. Love that book. And oddly enough, I too read it as a junior in college. Coincidence or conspiracy?