The book I remember most vividly from my early teens I can’t remember the title of. It was something like “Great Science Fiction Stories.” It was just one, I think, of several such collections edited by a man named Groff Conklin. I will never forget the name Groff Conklin, and I will never forget where “Great Science Fiction Stories” (or whatever it was called) stood on the shelves of the school library: directly to the left of the door as you walked in. I will also never forget the smell of that book: musty pasteboard and old glue and human-skin dust and moldering paper, the smell of used-book stores. It was a great fat anthology-sized volume with one of those anonymous solid-colour (green, I think) rebound covers with reinforced tape (brown, I think) down the spine. The original cover must have fallen off from years of use. It was a massive book to hold in the hand but unwholesomely light for its size, printed as it was on spongy paper not a lot better than newsprint.
I imagine “Great Science Fiction Stories” was a gathering of recent magazine science fiction, intended for a general audience. The stories were fantastic and clear. They were moral fables, most of them, clearly written. Probably they were by science fiction writers famous at the time, though I recognized none of the names then and have remembered none since. To me the stories seemed simply vivid and fascinating, and that made them as good as great. They were stories that taught me a writer can do anything. A few have stayed with me when everything else except Groff Conklin, the smell and heft of the book he edited, its possible colours, and its location on the shelf has disappeared. Here is my favourite. What seems to be a meteorite lands in a man’s back yard, burying itself deep in the ground. He digs down and discovers a turtle of enormous density. Next he’s in the kitchen, feeling a little smitten, fetching something for the creature to eat. When he takes a can from the shelf he accidentally crushes it in his hand. Then he falls through the floor.
Does fiction get any better than this? Not when you’re thirteen. When you’re thirteen it’s your first brush with The Force. Thank you, Groff.
“[Groff Conklin]” in Everybody’s Favourites: Canadians Talk About Books that Changed Their Lives. Ed. Arlene Perly Rae. Viking: Toronto, 1997. Pp. 139-40.