How One Book Can Change Your Life

We want to share with you all, our book-loving family, a letter from one of the most passionate booksellers this store has ever known, Steve Corrigan. We hope it means as much to you as it does to us.

Steve

When my brother handed me a copy of The Stranger, he told me it was a book I should read.  He was not in the habit of selecting books for me, so I realized the importance he placed on this one.

I was nineteen at the time, a sophomore in college.  The last thing I needed was another book to read.  I had enough textbook assignments to keep me busy for weeks.  Besides that, reading ranked low on my list of priorities.  I had never read anything which was not required of me in the classroom.

My brother was no different than me. So what was he up to?  What could The Stranger have to tell me?

So, after the obligatory insults–“What’s this you’re giving me?  A book?  Are you feeling alright?  Do you have a fever?  Getting delirious in your old age?  — I opened the cover to see what was inside.

I did not put the book down until I had completed it.  Its pace gripped me.  Its power stunned me.  I sat cross-legged on the edge of the bed, as if shell-shocked, immobile, after closing the cover for several seconds.  I had never read anything like it.

It was a relief I felt.  Yes, relief.  I was not alone.  Someone else was driven by similar thoughts which drove me.  I felt more sane that night than ever before.  One could think such things and not be mad.

There in that strange tale of a man who commits a reasonless murder under an indifferent sun and is convicted, not for his crime, but because he did not cry at his mother’s funeral and because he had no belief in God.  I heard a familiar voice, a voice of the stranger within myself, that spoke of my mind’s same preoccupations.  It was not the stranger’s thoughts I identified with, but the writer’s.

Camus became my spiritual father.  I sought him out in other books, reading first his novels and his short stories, then his plays and what essays I could understand.  I studied his photographs on the back covers, pouring over his notebook, sober-faced, cigarette in hand, eyes set on some Faustian haunt.  It was this photograph which first taught me that from his writing was unquestionably serious business.  Was it not the writer’s duty to keep civilization from destroying itself.

From Camus I went to Sartre, Hesse, Kafka.  I was neglecting my studies for a different education, what to me was a more pertinent education.  I can not say I understood much of what I read.  In retrospect I would say I misunderstood more than I did not, but the trend was set.  It was from that day to the present that a self education was my intention.  One book led to another until I had little time for anything else.  I might take wing with one author after another, the loftiest praise I could manage for whomsoever I might be reading at the time, but I always came back to Camus, if only to re-read a passage here and there.

It was years later that my sister found the book.  She had been helping to remodel a waterbed store in which she worked, and the book was lying amidst all the debris on a back shelf.  The Modern Library edition of The Stranger, due at the Memphis Highland Street Library in October, 1966.  It was then the spring of 1980.  Fourteen years lost.  Fourteen years abandoned to a dusty shelf.

My sister knew my fondness for the book and was quick to let me know of her find. She, too, read the book and passed it onto several friends.  When it was returned to her, rather hastily I might add, her friends were unimpressed, she decided to keep it rather than return it to the library.  She not only liked the text, but the size of the book as well as the feel of it in her hands.  It would make a handsome addition to her paperback collection.

From there it traveled where she traveled, from Memphis to Springfield, from Springfield to New Orleans.  All the while it occupied the same space on her shelf, unread.  No better off now than its fourteen year hiatus, except that it’s dust was periodically removed.

One night as I was writing her a letter I mentioned the book and asked her to bring it back to Memphis with her the next time she came.  I said something to the effect that her doing so would please Camus.  I sealed the letter and mailed it.

The next morning I scoffed at myself for what I had done.  “You don’t know Camus”, I told myself.  “How do you know what would or would not please him?”  But my words were in transit to New Orleans.

My sister’s letters back to me over the months said nothing of the matter, so it was forgotten.  Or, at least, it seemed to have been.

This past Christmas while visiting New Orleans my sister handed me a wrapped package.  Inside was the lost copy of The Stranger.  I was to take it back to Memphis with me.  My sister thought it would be amusing for me to hand the book to the librarian so as to witness the reaction.  And was not a prize given each year for that book returned which was longest overdue?

But I wanted neither praise nor prizes. And what reaction the librarian would have I could more vividly imagine than witness.  I simply wanted this book, which had meant so much to me, to be given the chance to reach another mind.  There is something depressing to me about seeing a book resting on a dusty shelf.  It should always be in transit toward another mind.

So, I dropped the book after library hours into the curbside bin for the librarian to find the next morning.  It pleased me to know that, ridiculous as it sounds, uafter eighteen years The Stranger had finally made it back home.

It was something I felt I owed to Camus.  More, it was something I felt I owed to the next reader who would pick up the book, open the cover, and look inside.  Perhaps, he or she, would begin that fantastic journey of the mind I am still traveling, would know as well, the relief I felt at hearing that familiar voice.

Au revoir, L’Etranger
Until we meet again.

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