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Stumbling into books

Stumbling into books

When I was young, I spent a lot of time at the library. As it turns out, I discovered some of my favorite books there, but not in the way you’d expect.

Much of the time I spent at the library was on the computer. You could reserve a computer for 2 hours a day by typing in your library card and pin at a central station which would assign you an available computer. I had three library cards memorized (mine and my two parents’), though I rarely used more than two in a day.

Most of my time at the library was spent playing RuneScape, NeoPets, or other online games I can only vaguely remember. There was a text-based empire management game where you could pick different tax rates, government types, and policies and compete with other players. I don’t remember the specifics, just that I ran The Geek Empire, which I recall being a massively successful communist operation with high taxes and a massive R&D budget.

But this story isn’t about computer games, at least not directly. It’s about how I discovered what would become (for some period of my life) my favorite book and my favorite TV show.

It all started at the reservation computer. I put in a card number (most likely my own, 100200351491, which for some reason I still remember to this day. As an extremely minor aside, this was actually a replacement card which I had to re-memorize after losing my original. I lost this card quickly as well, but resorted to typing it in by hand each time, which is likely why I still remember it) and was assigned computer #12, just outside of the main lab of computers.

I sat down at the computer and found a book sitting there, left by a previous user. It was When Lightning Strikes by Jenny Carroll (a pen name of Meg Cabot, better known for her Princess Diaries books). I skimmed the back cover and picked it up for two reasons: one, it sounded vaguely interesting. A teenaged girl gets struck by lightning and suddenly knows the location of missing kids. The fact that she sees these kids on the backs of milk cartons firmly dates the story, but that didn’t both me. The second reason was that the protagonist’s name was Jessica, which happened to be the same as the girl I had a crush on at the time.

I picked up the book and fell in love, happy to learn that there was a longer series I could keep reading. And other books by the same author! I read the Mediator series about a woman who can talk to ghosts, and even dabbled with some of Cabot’s more girl-aimed books as well.

But what I remember most is the end of that book, where the publisher included previews of other books you could order. They had a novelization of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I had heard of vaguely. I went to the trusty card catalog, picked up a book (I can’t remember if it was the same one as advertised) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I told my step mom, who made me aware of the show and the movie. I started watching both, which became a staple of my personality and interests for years to come.

My enjoyment of Buffy led to discovery of my first podcast (The Buffcast, which my mom loaded onto my iPod Nano after searching for “Buffy” in iTunes). The Buffcast led to me other shows by the same creators, where they recommended comics (especially Runaways and Y: The Last Man) and books (Game of Thrones) that I devoured from the age of 12-15. The hosts, Randy and Wayne, eventually shut down the podcast and moved away from one another, but it’s hard to overstate how much influence they had on me as a young member of their audience. They kept their humor clean, and they were funny and informative and friendly. They even had a couple live chat episodes with the fanbase. I remember one discussion where Wayne was taking suggestions on what to name his first child. (He eventually went with Willow.)

I didn’t set out to write about that podcast. Truth be told, I had forgotten it. But I followed that thread out to its completion, and that’s where it took me.

Before I go, I want to share the story of how I found one other book series, one I’m actually returning to right now. It’s called Area 51.

I didn’t just go to the library because of the computers. I also went there because I like to read. I would place holds on books (and eventually movies) across all kinds of genres, and every day I’d check if I had anything in. The holds were arranged by last name, and I always would spy what people next to me were reading. One name in particular always stood out, because he (I assumed) and I would read similar books. I was RIN, AL and I believe my mysterious friend was ROB, MI. I called him Rob in my head, though he was likely a Mike or Michelle instead. It’s also possible, more than 15 years out that I’ve forgotten the first initials entirely.

One day I saw Rob reading a book called Area 51: (something). I think it may have been “The Sphinx”. I picked it up, read the back, and immediately put a hold on it. At some point, either in this book, or one of the sequels, I realized that not only was this part of a series, but that I had started in the middle, and not at the beginning. Either it had done a good enough job explaining what came before, or the books were stand-alone enough not to matter that I just kept reading from where I was.

Earlier this year, I decided to go back and see if the books hold up. I bought the first (my library out here doesn’t hold any of them!) and again realized that I had never read this book before. I liked it okay, though it was far more of a military book than the pulpy sci-fi I remembered, so I grabbed the second. Surely this is where I came in, I thought. Nope! Even less memory of this book! I just recently picked up the third, and we’ll see if this one rings a bell either.

Looking at the titles, I am pretty sure I read the 4th and 5th, but who can say for sure. All I know is that after a 10-year hiatus, the author (who also writes under a pen name) returned to the series in 2020 and has put out two or three more since then. I hope they’re good!

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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