The Gift of 11 Cents that Made A Lifelong Reader

alex atkins bookshelf booksMost people who love books and reading can instantly recall from their youth a single book that opened the door to literature and changed their lives forever. One is reminded of Carl Jung’s concept of collective unconscious when one observes the deep sense of wonder and enchantment that washes over a reader’s face as they share this “literature discovery” story. You feel instantly connected to one another in this vast, universal community of fellow travelers along the seemingly infinite byways of literature… “wandering with our heroes and poets.”

I recently came across such a story in American historian Will Durant’s (1885-1981) fascinating autobiography titled Transition: A Mental Autobiography (1955). Durant and his wife, Ariel, are best known for their monumental work, The Story of Civilization. Written over four decades, encompassing 11 volumes, the series presents the compelling history of eastern and western civilizations. The series was a bestseller (2 million copies in nine languages) and the Durants won a Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1968. What is remarkable about Durant’s “literature discovery” story is that it was the serendipitous conjunction of two experiences: encouragement from a friend and the kindness of a stranger — specifically a gift of 11 cents — that helped open the door to become a lifelong reader. Durant writes: 

“It was Irene [a friend from school] who introduced me to literature… One day I saw in Irene’s hand a book called Pickwick Papers. I opened it and was at once allured by the abundance of conversation it contained; here was a lively book and a juicy one and it was so immense-seven or eight hundred pages; surely the author had been paid by the page, and had had an extravagant wife. I thought it would be quite a feat to read such a volume through; perhaps I should be the first boy in the world to accomplish it. But what moved me most was that it was Irene’s book; it must be good if her soft hands had touched it and her bright eyes had traveled along its lines. I begged it from her, and that night, against the protest of my parents, I burned the midnight oil over the adventures of the Pickwick Club, and Sam Weller, and the fat boy who always fell asleep. O happy and undisillusioned Victorians! maligned and misunderstood, what a delight it must have been to watch the creation, week after week, of that incom­parable imaginary world! What a delight it was even now, across a thousand obscuring differences of land and speech and time, to know this vivacious style, this inexhaustible drama, this endless chain of existing incident! I read every word and marvelled that I had lived twelve years without discovering the book. I returned it to Irene, and begged her for more. 

“It’s all I have by Dickens,” she said, sorrowfully. “But Papa says he’ll get me David Copperfield for Christmas.” 

Christmas was several months away; I could not wait that long. Within a week I had managed to accumulate fourteen pennies; and armed with them I walked the three miles be­tween our new home in Arlington and Dressel’s book-store in Newark. I asked the grouchy old gentleman behind the counter for the cheapest edition of David Copperfield. He went into a rear room, worked his way precariously among stacks of brokendown books, and emerged with a copy that might have rivaled Ulysses’ wanderings. 

“I will let this go for twenty five cents,” he said, munifi­cently.

My heart was broke temporarily.

“But mister,” I said, with a politeness which I seldom achieved, “I’ve only got fourteen cents.” 

He was unmoved, and turned away to another customer. I looked longingly at the book, and helplessly at space in general. Then a tall handsome gentleman, whom I conceived as a millionaire philosopher but who turned out to be a butcher, came over to me and put his arm around my shoul­der.

“What do you want, sonny?” he said.

David Copperfield,” I replied. 

“How much do you need?” 

“Eleven cents.”

“Is that all? Here you are; when you get rich you can pay me back.” 

Fortunately, he is dead now. But I was so grateful that I could not speak. I accepted the eleven cents as a gift from God, and walked out of the store in a daze. I trudged home in ecstasy over the kindness of Providence, the goodness of human nature, and the pleasures in store for me in the 860 pages which I carried under my arm. 

From that day I became a tremendous reader. When every­body else in the house was asleep I would read on despite a thousand admonitions about the injury I was doing to my health, and the cost of gas. It is true that I lost something of my taste for sport, and more of my skill in it… But what a new universe I had found! I no longer lived in prosaic New Jersey; I wandered around the world with my heroes and my poets.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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