“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” ― Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Avid bibliophiles love first editions. They are willing to pay as much as their bank accounts will bear to acquire them.

I consider myself a bibliophile, too. As much as I enjoy the convenience of ebooks, especially when I’m traveling or waiting in the car while my driver runs an errand, I join with those who love the feel of having a book in hand.

But even if I had the money to spend tracking down and buying first editions of the books that have come to have special meaning to me, I honestly would rather own a copy that belonged to someone who read it. Someone who, perhaps, scribbled their name on the first page, and the date they acquired it. Who made notes in the margins or underlined passages that resonated with them. Or both.

When I was in college, I owned a mass market paperback copy of a book by Bernard Wolfe: Limbo. This was in the middle sixties, as the generation of love and protest emerged from the staid conformity of postwar society. I’d be willing to state that this book was the one that turned me from a reader of speculative fiction into a hardcore fan.

I even, based on having read it, bought a copy of William James’s On the Moral Equivalent of War, which I never actually managed to get through.

Decades–and many, many other books equally thought-provoking–passed, and all I could remember was the title of the book and that it was one of the first that made me look outside the narrow confines of high school and lower middle class existence and see the danger of not asking hard questions. So, in addition to cementing my addiction to speculative fiction, Limbo turned me from a conservative into a progressive.

In other words, it was that one book most avid readers stumble on that literally alters the course of their intellectual life–and sometimes their social one as well.

Several months ago, I was thinking again about the book and did what for some reason had never occurred to me before–I Googled it, and learned both the author’s name and that it is considered in some quarters one of the classics of the genre. (Others are less complimentary, but that, as Mark Twain pointed out, is what makes horse races; and this is one book that can only be appreciated when debated.)

However, the copies I saw advertised online were, as might be expected, somewhat expensive, and I wasn’t sure nostalgia was worth the price.

Then, three years ago I was at ArmadilloCon, a literary SF convention here in Austin I’ve been to annually for ten of the last eleven years. My favorite bookseller, Adventures in Crime and Space, had suffered a setback prior to the convention, and the owner had cleaned out his closet of used books to bolster his offerings. There, in hardcover, was a copy of Limbo.

I tried to persuade myself I didn’t really need it, but when has that ever really worked? When the universe has gone to that much trouble to find something you’re looking for, it’s just arrogant to turn it down.

So, I now own a hardcover, which I’m re-reading with forty years’ experience I didn’t have when I first read it–and finding it just as compelling now as I did then.

But what, to me, is even more fun, is that I know at least one of the people who shared the experience, because he or she (Bootzie is one of those nicknames you can never be quite certain of) inscribed name and purchase date on the first flyleaf. And on the last one and the facing cover are some sketches and numbers that look like prices that make no sense whatever. It doesn’t matter.

This isn’t a book that went from the printing press to a collector’s shelf. This is a book that was read, and perhaps by more than one person, because it ultimately ended up in a used book store. This book has history, and that history gives it something a pristine first edition can never have–personality.

Someone read this book. They may have loved it…or hated it. Perhaps it had the same effect on them it did on me, or maybe they tossed it against the nearest wall in outrage. Either way, like all books that have been ingested, my copy of Limbo carries with it something of all those who turned the pages and absorbed the words and ideas it contains. Reading it, I almost feel as if I’m sharing it with those who preceded me, like a spiritual book club.

So, those who rush to acquire first editions while they’re still warm from the press are welcome to them. I would much rather have a book that’s been read and handled and enjoyed–and carries “memories’ of that on its pages.

Limbo by Bernard Wolfe (1952)

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