Leave aside closets that lead to Narnia and cyclones that carry passengers to Oz. Some of the greatest emotional and spiritual revelations for me have happened in bookstores, especially when Christmas shopping. There have been many times that are common to bibliophiles: finding a new author, finding a subject that hits the spot -- the first book that I truly related to was a children's story of a string that went through various stages of relaxation and tension. In my young teens there were the Jeeves stories by P.G. Wodehouse; a touching platonic love story by Ray Bradbury; the discoveries that John Steinbeck and Shirley Jackson had written humorous stories about their families; everything I could find about the history of flight, which led to Anne Morrow Lindbergh's writing, which made me feel (at ages fourteen to seventeen) that I wasn't unique or as solitary as I thought -- also a revelation to an adolescent. Mrs. Lindbergh had had a complex relationship with her husband, but she had an infinitely better spatial sense than I had. Her phrase about the sun "buttering" the leaves, from one of her collections of Diaries and Letters, impressed me for months.
Once, while selecting gifts for relatives, I looked up into the serious face of a young man in a photograph on a book cover that contained the first volume of George Kennan's Memoirs. Whoosh -- that was a life-changing event. I bought volumes one and two, gobbled them up greedily at home, and I haven't been the same since.
The most interesting discovery was, as Chris Rock said it in Everybody Hates Chris, "... finding a needle in a needle stack." My mother had bought a Vietnam POW/MIA bracelet in the early 1970s. The officer’s name and rank were Lt. Col. Lawrence Guarino. He was listed as “Missing In Action” since 1967.
As groups of former POWs came home after the war, Mom and I checked the lists for Col. Guarino, but did not see his name. Eventually, we assumed that he had died. Years later, we were Christmas shopping in a Providence bookstore. We were in separate aisles, and I was seated next to a pile of books. Peripherally I saw photographs, and red-and-gray colors. I looked down and saw the title, A POW's Story: 2801 Days in Hanoi by Col. Larry Guarino. I picked up one book, but put it down quickly. Col. Guarino’s photograph showed him at about half of his healthy weight. I was appalled and tremendously excited.
“I’ve found the man on my mother’s POW bracelet!” I cried to the people near me. No doubt they were bewildered. “Mom, I’ve found Lawrence Guarino!” Mom walked to the pile of books and exclaimed over them. She picked up one and thumbed through it, her face a picture of intense concentration.
“Well, I don’t really want to read it,” she mused, commenting on her abhorrence of descriptions of torture.
Although unable to read his story, after eight years we knew that Col. Guarino was alive and had been able to write a book about his experiences. We felt that we had found a missing person, and the feeling was extraordinary.