I had been upstairs at the Library before, of course, accompanied by an adult, so my first day there on my own I knew straight where I was headed – the Fiction Room. But how could I choose among the thousands of books there?
I already was a fan of random choice when it came to making difficult, but basically inconsequential decisions, such as deciding which socks to wear or which route to take to school, so I pulled out a dollar bill and counted the number of bookcases corresponding to the first digit of the serial number, then down the number of shelves corresponding to the second digit; then I counted, from left to right, the number of books corresponding to the next two digits. I would not even look at the title of the book I finally ended up with, but continued the process until I had a total of twelve books which, at that time, was the startlingly high number of books one was allowed to borrow at one time. After stopping at the front desk to check them out – I assume the librarian at the desk was suitably bemused – I lugged them home – it was a good three mile walk – a fat little boy with two armfuls of books – and up into my room. It was not until then that I allowed myself to see what I had.
I did this for two or three years. If I discovered an author I liked, then I would forego my system and read through all his books. My first-discovered favorite was Robert Nathan. Nathan wrote sentimental novels that wedded fantasy with the commonplace in a way I found especially appealing. Portrait of Jeannie is his best known work – it was made into a movie with Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones– but my favorite was The Enchanted Voyage, about an unintended adventure by three charmingly naive people on a sailboat fitted with wheels. (The internet tells me that it, too, was made into a movie in 1946, Wake up and Dream, although the summary of the movie’s plot does not correspond much to my memory of the book.)
I must have brought home hundreds of randomly chosen books – not that I read every one. If the first page or two did not catch my interest I would go on to the next. I don’t remember most of them, of course. There were quite a few gritty World War II novels, I think. I thought I had read all of Jules Verne downstairs in the Children’s Library and was happy to find many new ones upstairs, most notably, Michael Strogoff, which I enjoyed enough to read twice. Jack London was another discovery. I remember being fascinated by a small book by Schopenhauer, which had inadvertently ended up in the Fiction Room.
My fate at last was sealed when I came across Dostoevsky. For the first time I encountered protagonists who were not as I wished I were, but who were as I was, who thought in abstractions, just as I did, who were almost constantly in anguish, as I was, and who bungled their way through their days just as I did. I never looked back. My random reading was over.
(Well, that’s not strictly true. While the books on my shelves have been carefully chosen, if I am not involved in some particular author or some particular strain of thought, I sometimes resort to random selection in choosing which book from those shelves to read.)