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  Category: Articles » Arts & Entertainment » Humanities » Article

Why I Love Books by Unknown Authors

By Donovan Baldwin

Years ago in college (we won't say how many years ago, okay?), I was exposed to the wisdom of "college professors" for the first time. My parents had insisted I get a good education, and they were themselves somewhat well read and there was often opera heard in our home, anything on TV by William Shakespeare had to be watched, every classical presentation was viewed, and books of poetry not only rested on the bookcase but were actually picked up and read. However, my first real personal exposure to those who embodied the notion of "wisdom" were the professors I encountered in college and many of the students as well. For the first time in my life, I was actually hearing and participating in discussions and debate which included give and take, opinions, wit, knowledge...the very fabric of intellectualism. Additionally, I encountered new authors with ideas I had never thought of, or had not had the words to articulate.

Eventually, amidst all this intellectual stimulation, I performed what was probably the defining moment of my least from the intellectual standpoint. I remember it well. It was in my Junior year at Florida State University in Tallahassee, 1966, while majoring in accounting, when the transition began with one simple event. I flunked out for the second semester in a row and was refused readmission.

This opened the door for a REAL education. Like college, it began a few weeks later with a letter. "Greetings. Your friends and neighbors...." I had lost my college exemption, and had just received a draft letter. This was 1966, and I had just been invited to one of the major educational happenings of the 60's...Viet Nam. Nominally, of course, I was just being informed that the time had come to fulfill my obligation of military service. No mention was made about 'Nam, Southeast Asia, or anything else hinting at actual combat, death, destruction, dismemberment...all those things that teenage boys in the 60's thought about pretty regularly.

I fooled 'em. Instead of letting them draft me for two years, I enlisted in the U. S. Army for four. Let me see. How did that go again? I was only going to have to serve four years doing it my way instead of two...wait a minute!

Actually, enlisting rather than getting drafted was the smart move because I had some option in selecting what sort of training and subsequent assignment I might get. If drafted, I would have had to become whatever they told me to be which had a good chance of being what was officially known as an "eleven bravo" or 11B, but which many of us called a "downrange bullet catcher" or more succinctly, "cannon fodder" or "target". An 11B was a combat infantryman. Now, just to set the record straight, 11B's are the backbone of the army, and the battles you hear about are being fought by those guys. I have worked hand-in-hand with them over the years and have some stories I could tell. I respect and admire the hell out of them. I just didn't want to be one.

So, what does all this have to do with used books, unknown authors, and intellectual stimulation...not to mention the Polish woman I lived with in Germany (that's another story too)?

Well, I entered the U. S. Army not quite wet behind the ears but with a few dewdrops still attached. They snatched the head of cabbage I rode in on out from under me, and my real education begin. I found out that while a lot of the intellectual stuff I had been stuffed with DID matter, a lot of times there were other things that were of a more practical matter at the moment.

It was kinda like the old joke I heard in college about the college professors who went camping. They had a can of beans, but no can opener. The chemistry professor suggested heating the can to expand the gasses, and the can would explode open. The economist pooh-poohed the idea saying they would lose the beans in the explosion. The physics professor suggested that a sharp, heavy rock striking the can at the appropriate angle with the appropriate force would split it open. The economist demurred, saying that the beans again would be scattered by the force required. Both professors then asked if HE had a solution, to which he replied, "Why, yes, of course." Lighting his pipe, he leaned back and in his best professorial voice began, "First we must assume the can is open..."

In the army, one had to figure out how to open the can, or be prepared to explain why in the hell it wasn't open. However, not only was I a soldier in the army, but once again I found myself among men and minds who ranged from the intellectually not of this world to those whose judge told them to go in the army or go to for homicide. I met whores, pimps, Venezuelan revolutionaries (one an amigo of Che Guevara, by his telling), spies, criminals, artists, musicians, and just plain drunks. I was awash in a mix of reality and intellectual stimuli far beyond anything I had ever known before.

When I returned to the mundane world of "college" to complete my degree after four years of this, I began to notice how shallow and meaningless so many things proposed as important or necessary were to me. I saw people and events in a new light, from the boys on the night time stock crew I temporarily bossed at a grocery store to the lawyers and doctors I later interacted with as an accountant, fiscal consultant, budget analyst, and business manager. Even my own profession began to seem shallow and uninteresting to me. These feelings, coupled with a few negative experiences gave me the excuse I needed to return to the U. S. Army where I finally completed 21 years of service and eventually retired.

Another change had to do with books and the thoughts and ideas therein. Where before I would hear that a book was excellent or found it on the NY Times best seller list and read it in hopes of finding new insights that would elevate my own thoughts and dreams, I now found myself regularly disappointed. Oh, it wasn't that the people weren't smart, educated, intelligent, insightful, or competent...both as researchers or as authors. It was just I always seemed to be hearing either what I had heard before, or it seemed to scream from the page that, "I was written to appeal to the masses!!!!!" In other words, so much was written simply in the hopes of making money off of it.

Up until that time, I had always bought the best books, glorying in the fact that I was friends with Plato, Shakespeare, Jefferson and Franklin, and that I could point to these as things I owned. Somewhere, sometime, however, I went into a used book store. I have absolutely no memory of what the first books were I bought, but for some reason I eschewed buying "name" authors and bestsellers from second hand book shops. As I began to read works I had never heard of on topics I had never thought of written by authors who were only known to be so by immediate friends and family...and the Library of Congress, of course...I found myself once again amid ideas and concepts that flipped switches and started the old dusty motors of my mind.

Of course, not every book was worth reading, but there amid the half-price bins of castoffs and renderings I found nuggets, tapestries, new worlds, and wonders. Many of the authors had taken on subjects that no one else wanted to deal with, or had taken a different approach, or simply did not write the way everybody else did. It was a little bit like being back in Germany in the 60's.

I don't remember the last time I bought a new book or knew anything about the author. I'm having too much fun scrounging through the musty, dusty bins of books in second hand book stores.
About the Author
Donovan Baldwin is a Texas writer and University of West Florida alumnus. He is a member of Mensa and is retired from the U. S. Army after 21 years of service. He sells do it yourself legal forms and software at

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