1979/80: The Greatest Year of Reading Ever

Child reading a book

I Don’t Wanna Go to Mississippi

My family moved from Southern Virginia to Jackson, Mississippi in the summer after my 7th grade year. I was pretty upset to be leaving my school and friends, especially David and Cyrus, and I didn’t want to leave Virginia. My family let me spend the summer with my grandparents because I must have pitched a fit.

That was a wonderful summer. I have adapted some of my experiences from that summer into a novel. However, when the summer ended, I still had to go to Mississippi. I didn’t want to go to Mississippi. Most of the reasons were quite trivial.

In Virginia, we had lived thirty minutes from Busch Gardens and King’s Dominion. Mississippi didn’t have any amusement parks. In Virginia, my backyard was the Petersburg National Battlefield. Williamsburg and Jamestown were just down the road. Finally and most important, Petersburg had Duffy’s Pizza and they showed W. C. Fields shorts while you ate pizza. What could be better?

I Find the South Hills Library and Waldenbooks

I flew to Mississippi just before I began my 8th grade year. Flying was fun. This was in the days when airline travel was classy and they fed you on the plane. I remember the meal perfectly to this day, probably because eating at 30,000 feet is memorable. I had a damp ham sandwich that had been cut into triangles, a fruit cup, and a spreadable Swiss cheese with crackers. The cheese left an impression.

I lived too close to Peeples Junior High to ride the bus, so I had to walk, unless it was raining. Of course, backwards Mississippi had no sidewalks, so I could walk in the road with the cars, or walk on the dewy, damp grass and arrive at school with wet, dirty shoes. I was sure that everyone noticed my dirty shoes.

About halfway between my house and my school was the South Hills Library. It has since been renamed the Richard Wright Library. It was so hot the first week of school that we had “heat days” and only went half days. In the first week, I discovered that the library was air conditioned, so I began to stop every day.

One of the librarians whose name I have forgotten befriended me and kept me supplied with a constant stream of reading material. She was the one who directed me toward the grand adventures of Thor Heyerdahl and Peter Jenkins.

These adventures filled a hole in my world that eased the hole in my life caused by my shyness and lack of friends. Thor and his friends caught sharks by the tail with their hands! They sailed across the Pacific on a balsa raft, crossed the Atlantic on a reed boat, and explored Easter Island.

What boy raised on the adventures of Frodo and Bilbo wouldn’t want to be on the raft with Thor? Besides they were far from my prison in Mississippi.

Metrocenter, the largest mall between Dallas and Atlanta, was the other direction and within easy walking distance, especially when I learned the short cuts. Metrocenter had a Waldenbooks. Any time I ended up with five dollars in my pocket, I walked over there and choose a new book.

At the time, I chose my books based solely on the covers. Now I am more sophisticated and read the back cover copy too. I always wanted a copy of the Mists of Avalon, but it cost too much, so I wouldn’t be able to get a drink for the walk back home.

South Hills Library and Waldenbooks shaped my 8th grade year. By the way, I learned to love Mississippi over the years.

The Books

The Books from the Library

Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

As I was writing this article, I was disappointed to find that most of Thor Heyerdahl’s books are now out of print. Kon Tiki was made into a film several years ago, so it is still available in paperback. Heyerdahl believed that the Polynesian islands were populated from Peru rather than the more traditional view that Polynesians spread from Asia to the Pacific Islands. This placed him on the side of kook science, but he persisted in his thesis.

Shortly after World War II concluded, Heyerdahl decided to prove the feasibility of his thesis, so in 1947 a team of his friends went to Peru and built a balsa raft to sail across the Pacific Ocean. Imagine the impact of that on the mind of a 13 year old boy who longed to be somewhere else filled with adventure.

For years, I consumed every Heyerdahl book that I could get my hands on. I explored Easter Island with Aku-Aku. When Ra I sunk off the coast of Brazil, I was on the ship with them. I found paradise on Fatu-Hiva. I burned the Tigris in protest over the Middle Eastern wars.

Search these books out. I don’t know enough to endorse his theories of how humanity spread around the world, but I completely embrace the adventure. Heyerdahl is a great story teller.

A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins began his walk in 1974 “to discover himself and his country.” He grew up in the United States during a difficult and divisive time in our country’s history. Again, several of Peter Jenkins’s books have gone out of print over the years, but you can still get a new copy of A Walk Across America.

Peter left his home in Alfred, New York with his dog, Cooper, and began to walk across the country. He wanted to meet people, to find out what they were like, to connect with humanity. I loved the idea, and, thumbing through the book, I noticed that he crossed Mississippi at the narrowest part, along the coast. Yes, that was important to me then.

There is even a love story. Peter paused in New Orleans to write the first book and met Barbara, whom he married. Dogs, adventures, romance, A Walk Across America was the perfect book for me in 8th grade.

The Original Cover

Peter appealed to the lonely, isolated 8th grader that I was. I would have done almost anything to follow in his steps and find out where I belonged. The thing that really captured my mind is his method of travel. He walked until he found a place where someone cared and then he would settle down for a bit, maybe work in a mill, getting to know people by common labor and experience.

Personally, I do not like the new cover. The dog is obviously not Cooper. The man isn’t Peter. It is marketing. The original cover is real. I bet Peter doesn’t like the new one either.

Cooper died in Tennessee in an accident with a tractor. It was heartbreaking when I read it.

Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan

Inherit the Stars was one of my “lost books” for years. I checked it out from the library and loved it, but later I couldn’t remember the title or author. In the pre-Internet world that meant it was lost. Then one cold November evening at the Cedar Rapids, Iowa library book sale, I stumbled upon a copy! That led me to the sequels which I recommend as well.

Inherit the Stars has the single, best premise for a sci-fi book that I have ever seen. While exploring the surface of the Moon shortly after the Apollo missions, astronauts find an unidentified man in a space suit. None of the bases have reported anyone missing. Eventually, they figure out the man, now nicknamed Charlie, died 50,000 years before. How can they figure out where Charlie came from?

The rest of the book solves the mystery of Charlie. I loved it. I still love it. If I meet a sci-fi fan and I have a spare copy, I give one copy away. Please do yourself a favor an try this one out.

The story that this is most like is Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper. In Omnilingual, and expedition to Mars discovers an advanced civilization and their library. How can they translate all of those books?

Unfortunately, Inherit the Stars is out of print and the link that I have provided is for an audiobook that I have not listened to.

I read a lot more books from the library but they are either out of print, or faded from the memory. There is one that I have tried to find about a world of stairs, but I just don’t remember enough to find it again (even with the Internet).

The Books From Waldenbooks

Starship Troopers by Robery A. Heinlein

Starship Troopers, the book, is related to Starship Troopers, the movie, like The Lord of the Rings is related to the Peter Jackson monstrosity. The movies may be good movies, but they are terrible interpretations of the books that they are based upon.

Starship Troopers is the last of twelve juvenile novels that Heinlein wrote with teenagers as the primary audience. Writers didn’t think in terms of series like they do today, but these books form a coherent future history that should be read as a whole.

Each book in the series focuses on a young man who is searching for his place in the world. The heroes face trials and tribulations and learn their place in the larger society. I was the perfect audience for these.

This is one of the first books that I bought at Waldenbook. It cost either $2.95 or @2.99. I don’t remember any more and can’t look. My original book fell to pieces long ago. Whatever the price, it left me money to buy a chocolate malt from Dairy Queen for the walk back home.

I learned way too much philosophy from Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. In Heinlein’s future, world democracy has been perfected by entrusting the franchise to those who have served society in the military. No one can be turned down for service and once they have completed their term they become citizens and can vote and hold office.

Why do nations fight wars? Why is authority respected? Heinlein has answers. History and Moral Philosophy might be a good class for high schools today.

I shoved this book on my kids. I pushed this book on my students. Now I am shoving it on a larger audience.

Starman Jones by Robert Heinlein

This is another of Heinlein’s juvenile novels. Max Jones grew up on a farm. Max has the perfect background for the hero’s journey. His mom dies. Then his father remarries. His father dies. Then his step-mother remarries, leaving Max out of place with a step-mother and her husband who have responsibility for him but little love.

He leaves home with his only possession, his uncle’s astrogation manuals, and hitchhikes to Earthport. Max meets up with Sam, an experienced spacer and confidence man, who alternately scams and helps Max.

Max has his dreams smashed by a cruel world that doesn’t care, but Sam gets him a place on the spaceship Asgard. With his dreams at hand, Max has to admit that he has lied to get on the ship. Soon disaster descends on the passengers and crew of the Asgard, but Max saves them all and finds his place in society.

Other books in the series that I really love include Space Cadet, Rocket Ship Galileo, Red Planet, Tunnel in the Sky, Have Space Suit – Will Travel, and Citizen of the Galaxy. Several books in this series are no longer in print.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

The Foundation series makes everyone’s list. There is a reason. Asimov is a lean writer. His writing voice sounds like the most interesting professor that you ever had, presenting the most interesting material on your favorite subject. He doesn’t try to confuse you with everything that he knows and take you down interesting rabbit trails.

In Foundation, Harry Sheldon, young prodigy and mathematician, realizes that the Empire is disintegrating and that a Galactic Dark Age is coming. Being a good guy, he wants to ease humanity through the transition and make the Dark Age as short as possible. Since he is a prodigy, he develops psychohistory, a new branch of mathematics that allows him to see into the future.

The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

I was so happy when I found The Sword of Shannara. After years of searching, I had found another series like the Lord of the Rings. I had read the Dragonriders and Earthsea books, A Wrinkle in Time, and others, but they lacked the epic feel to them. They were all good but “small” books. I wanted a vast world to disappear in where I could be the hero of my own life, unlike my life in the 8th grade.

The publishers were geniuses. When I saw the original cover, I immediately recognized the artwork of the Hildebrandt brothers. I had been collecting their Tolkien inspired calendars for years. When I saw the cover, I knew the story. I saw Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli gazing back at me. I knew the names would be different, but I knew the characters.

At the time, all of the Lord of the Rings similarities were a plus. I knew what to expect and the surprises that Brooks threw in were fun. The various fantasy races were the result of nuclear war. There was even the remains of an old city. I pored over the maps trying to figure out what city they saw, but never could decide. The TV show chose Seattle.

I went on to read all of the Shannara books. Terry Brooks improved over the series. I outgrew Shannara, but they were perfect at that time in my life.

Conclusion of the Matter

One of the best things that ever happened to me was being forced to move after the 7th grade. I became a reader in the 6th grade but reading hadn’t yet become a part of my identity like it did during the 8th grade.

During my 8th grade year, books became the source to fuel my inner, adventurous life. I explored my life choices through the various hero’s journeys that I read. I was Sam on Mount Doom, Johnny Rico in the capsule, Peter Jenkins walking with Cooper, and all of the others.


Author: Adam Christiansen

Adam is the host of Book Chats. He is also a husband, father, dog owner, baker, gardener, writer, and Red Cross Blood Ambassador. He is a keen observer of humanity and can often been seen taking notes on the interesting things that people do, like bringing a sailboat into a slip.

2 thoughts on “1979/80: The Greatest Year of Reading Ever

  1. I have read several of the Peter Jenkins books, and loved them all. I was so sad—disillusioned even— when I learned he and Barbara divorced.

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