One day Richard finds in a Memphis newspaper an article railing against the writings of H. L. Mencken, a reporter who also edits the American Mercury, a magazine Richard occasionally reads. Richard feels that any writer believed to be dangerous by Southern whites must be a writer worth reading, and decides he will get his hands on Mencken’s books from the public library, which is for whites only. Richard asks an Irish Catholic man at the optical shop named Falk if he will allow Richard to forge a note from him, allowing Richard to check out Mencken books on Falk’s apparent behalf. Falk agrees, but says that Richard could get in trouble for doing this. Richard, however, is determined to read Mencken, by whatever means necessary.
Mencken is, in many ways, Richard’s final inspiration—the writer who most clearly contributes to his professional resolve to become a writer. Here, Richard must take a small risk—asking a white man for his library card—in order even to look at books written by Mencken. But Richard has been hardened by the difficult events of his life up till this point, and he is not afraid to tell a small lie to get around the restrictions imposed on him by Southern white society in order to be rewarded so richly.
Richard shows “Falk’s” note to the librarian at the Memphis library, and she agrees to lend the book to Richard “for Falk,” although she worries for a moment that Richard himself will read them (he tells her he is illiterate). Richard takes home Mencken’s Prejudices and A Book of Prefaces, and begins reading the latter. He is shocked by the range of Mencken’s intellect and the power of his writing; Richard also encounters, for the first time, the names of many famous writers, including Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Nietzsche.
Not only is Richard in awe of Mencken’s prose style, but he also uses Mencken as a gateway to other writers. Richard has been perhaps dimly aware of the history of world literature, but in Mencken he finds a teacher and a guide, a critic who explains the importance of each of these writers and who encourages Richard to read their works as well.
Richard begins staying up most nights reading. He checks out more books from the library, using Falk’s card, including novels by Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. Richard does not read so much for the “plot” of the novels, but rather for the “point of view” they espouse—the novels are, to him, a window onto other ways of life. People including Olin and Mrs. Moss ask Richard why he is reading so much, but Richard hides his passion from them, saying only that he works his way through the books “to kill time.”
Now that Richard has access to a library, the greatest problem of his young life—his inability to purchase books—is resolved. Richard can now spend whatever free time he has sitting in his room and reading. He smartly hides the purpose behind his reading, assuring that neither white nor black society can interfere with his plans. His education is a purely individualistic endeavor, and through books he is exposed to the full breadth and ideas of the wider world. Books are the way out of the South for him.
Richard’s brother, who has been living in Jackson with their mother, comes up to Memphis with her to join Richard, and the three move into a house together in the winter of 1926. Richard continues with his reading, and feels that “a gulf is widening” between himself and those around him, uneducated black people who do not desire to move North, or have no means to do so. Richard makes early attempts at writing and plans, with his mother and brother, to move north to Chicago. He realizes that he will not be able to be deferential to white authority like Shorty, nor will he survive forever in a “business” context with whites, whose power Richard resents too deeply.
As he begins making his way through the canon of Western literature, there is a feeling brewing in Richard that perhaps he is further alienating himself from the people around him—some of the few friends he has made in his life. But Richard’s desire to learn outstrips everything else, including his desire for human companionship. Luckily, when Richard’s mother and brother return, they seem more amenable to Richard’s intense study, and his near-constant reading.