I did it again. I went bookstore browsing a second time.
On this particular street there are two bookstores, one across from the other. I just stopped and stared for a moment. Two independent bookstores. Not just in one city but on one block. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have blinked. Yesterday I stood, amazed. Tears nearly rolled down my cheeks.
When I went inside both, however, I was a little more sobered. The clerks were leaning on their elbows staring at the wall. I was the only person in either store.
I suppose I shouldn’t be too dismayed. It was the middle of the day, it was a Wednesday. And in one I heard someone who was either the owner or the manager tell an incoming cashier, “I’ve sold 15 books so far today.” Being how tomb-like it was when I was in there and considering it wasn’t even quite noon yet, I was actually impressed.
Again I luxuriated in browsing shelves, something we used to take for granted but which is now a rarified experience. And it’s not just with books. Over the weekend my wife and I went shopping for a new TV. Our eleven-year-old Sharp LCD, one of the earliest LCD models out there and a terrific set, finally gave up the ghost.
There was only one store where we could check out new models, BestBuy. (Okay, I suppose there was Sears, but the nearest Sears isn’t very near and they’re dying too, so they don’t really count.) I didn’t want to just order something online without seeing it. The last time we bought a TV we were able to compare models and features and interfaces in The Good Guys, Circuit City, and other stores. Now all gone.
I know online is cheaper, and I like to save a buck as much as anyone. But don’t people miss shopping? Don’t people enjoy losing themselves in a bookstore, record shop or even appliance store?
And mailing a 50″ flat panel back to the manufacturer if there’s a defect or just a cosmetic scrape is not a task for the faint-hearted. Or weak-backed.
Back to the bookstores. Again I made an impulse purchase in one. (The other one has a new book on George Washington I’m considering, but I haven’t even read the last book I bought on George Washington yet.) Again it was fun. I wouldn’t have done this online, even though the same book is 40 percent less. In the grand scheme of things, when you consider people sometimes spend hundreds of dollars a month to have a phone that does absolutely useless things for the most part, spending a few bucks isn’t that big a deal if it keeps people employed and neighborhoods nice. It’s part of an eco-balance the way any environment-improving, lifestyle-enhancing gesture is.
I was able to sit down on a soft couch near the back and read a good chunk of the book, which convinced me it was something I’d enjoy and not just something I’d put in my electronic shopping cart for a month until I finally grew tired of seeing it there and deleted it. It’s much easier to close a sale when you’re holding the merchandize in your hand, rather than looking at a thumbnail jpeg of it.
Experiences like this are just far too rare these days. They’re to be cherished. I look forward to the next one. Even if I do have way too many books to read now.
Read part I, I Did Something Kinky Today, here.
No, I didn’t see Fifty Shades of Grey.
I went into a bookstore and browsed for half an hour. Aimlessly. From shelf to shelf. Without an agenda, or an intention to buy anything.
The woman behind the counter asked if she could help me. When I told her I was just browsing, she seemed pleased, and just left me alone.
Sadly, I was the only person in the store.
Granted, it was a Monday, it was in the middle of the afternoon and it wasn’t at a high foot traffic area like a mall. Still, I couldn’t help notice that the phone center store on the same block was mobbed with people—mostly Millennials—swiping and caressing little plastic monoliths, their heads bowed in secular prayer.
I roamed among titles old and new. I was surprised that an author who hadn’t written anything since the 80s had a new book out, and that another favorite, Richard Ford, had added a fourth volume to his Frank Bascombe saga, though after the slightly disappointing third book I’m not sure if this is necessarily a good thing.
I flipped through the books. Flipped through them. Something you can’t do online. Not just every third page or the first five. And in a store, one can also assess the quality of the paper, the print, the binding, and so on.
Just six or so years ago, doing what I did today was not the slightest bit unusual. Recently I was talking to someone at a family gathering and he was extolling the virtues of Amazon to me, “I love ’em,” he laughed. “They had these earbuds for three dollars and I got them delivered to my door the next day! I buy everything from Amazon. I hope they drive everyone out of business.” He thinks he’ll still get things for three dollars the next day after Amazon becomes a monolith. It’s amazing how some people do not understand how the world works.
I had just gone into that store to browse, but I bought a book. And was very pleased I supposed the local economy instead of ordering online, even though, yes, I could have gotten the title forty percent cheaper if a robot had filled the order from a mega-warehouse.
It was honestly the most fun I’d had in a long time. Doing something I used to do all the time and never think twice about…
READ BANNED BOOKS the banner at Powell’s Bookstore’s website cries. Apparently this is Banned Books week in the U.S. Browsing through the titles, I was surprised how few of them I’d read: sorry, Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, All the Pretty Horses, and To Kill A Mockingbird have never imprinted themselves on my retina, and I couldn’t get through The Old Man and The Sea, Brave New World or Harry Potter. So sue me.
I was also surprised how uncompelling I found much on this list. I decided, after some thought, that reading banned books, at least for the fact of them being banned books, is a bad idea.
Why? Well, the whole appeal to me seems somewhat along the lines of the “bad kids” in school trying to get you to cut class and go outside into the courtyard and smoke cigarettes instead. It seems to say, “Read banned books because someone thought or thinks this is bad behavior. Be cool. Be the rebel. That’s the reason to do it.”
Not that for a moment the concept of banning books doesn’t bother me. Doesn’t anger me. But a banned book does not equate to a good book, not necessarily. While some of the titles listed on their page are great, some are, I think, mediocre, and a few are laughable. There are better books I could spend my limited time on earth with, so many.
And sometimes the reasons certain books were banned are silly. Or no longer relevant. The Potter books ruffled feathers because in the eyes of some they deal with “black magic,” aka, Satanism. Well, I think that’s a stupid reason to blackball a book—but it’s also a stupid reason to read one. There will always be those who find Satan lurking everywhere. While that’s unfortunate, I don’t see what it has to do with reading a banned book. Similarly I think The Old Man and The Sea is flat and pretentious—I don’t care if it won a Pulitzer and was influential in getting Papa his Nobel. No one should have moved to ban it, but there’s better Hemingway, banned or not.
Many of the other works listed have been banned for well-known reasons—bigotry, political or other intolerance. This is regretful and unacceptable, but I see no reason to feel compelled to read them because of it. I don’t need Ralph Ellison or Harper Lee to tell me racism is wrong, and America’s past in this regard is both shameful and regretful. Sadly, the people who most need to learn history will probably never make the effort, but as Francine Prose asks, what’s the point of reading a book of which the effect on you is pre-determined? And the people who need to read these books likely never will.
Other novels were banned for reasons that are now silly—they dealt too openly with sexuality or perhaps contained many curse words. These may have been hot-button issues at the time the novels hit the shelves. They may have infuriated prude librarians or some local PTA. But the reason for their shock is long gone. Once upon a time Elvis shaking his pelvis on TV upset the nation too, but now it’s laughably quaint.
And some titles on the list are just, well, a little ludicrous. I don’t want to read Fifty Shades of Grey or The Hunger Games and don’t feel I’ll miss out by giving them a big pass. I have nothing against you if you do, but with so much I’ve yet to crack by Updike, Doctorow, Rushdie, Kazantzakis, Kundera, Chekhov, Flaubert, Woolf, Saramago, (Richard) Yates, (Richard) Ford, and countless others, I’m not even slightly interested, banned or not.
Of course, I’m probably taking all this a bit too literally. A “banned books week” is—let’s face it—probably the work, at least in part, of marketers who want to drag people’s heads out of their smartphones. And I think that is a great idea. Read the books, if you do, because you want to. But don’t feel bad if you haven’t read a lot of these titles, or would rather read something else. Don’t think for a minute the “banned” book is necessarily more worthy. No book should be banned, but not all banned books are equal. Having said that, there are a few titles on the Powell’s page I’ve long been dying to check out. I’ll add them to my list…but not because they were banned.
I was reminded of this when I went over my credit card statements recently.
Mind you, I always knew I had a big Amazon habit. (“Hi, I’m John, and I have a BIG Amazon habit!” “Hiiii, Johnnn!“) Sometimes I think I built one of the wings, and maybe the pool, on Jeff Bezos’ mansion. He could at least invite me over once in a while.
But there’s something about staring all those credit card charges in the face, about actually seeing how rich I made the founder of Amazon last month. This is why I procrastinate when it comes to going over my credit card statements, something that baffles my wife, an accountant, who actually enjoys looking at columns of numbers. Lots of them. *Shudder!*
I do sell items on Amazon as well and so get some of that money back, but not as much as I spend. I collect classical CDs, but more have passed through my collection than have remained. Over the years I’ve bought about three times as many compact discs as I have currently. I’m still searching for really great performance for a lot of pieces. Anyone who can get me to “grok” the Schumann concertos—any of them—gets a special shout-out on my blog.
And yes, I’m aware so much my patronage of Amazon hurts the cute, cozy little bookstores, the kind that always seem to have creaky floors and cats sleeping in the front window. That’s why I make sure I drop money with them too.
And I’ve been upgrading my DVDs to Blu-ray, at least when there are Blu-ray versions available. (It’s amazing the great films that are still not on Blu-ray.) That explains a lot of transactions over the past year or so. You have not lived till you’ve seen Casablanca on Blu-ray.
Still, nothing prepared me for some of my credit card statements. They almost had to be delivered flat. Pages and pages of charges, many from the Big A in Seattle. “Surely this is a mistake,” I think before checking them on my computer.
No mistake. Damn.
So I looked around my house and counted all the books I haven’t yet read. No, I’m not going to tell you the number, because my wife reads this blog.
I’m reminded of the guy who owns a terrific indie video store, Bill. Bill told me he stopped buying DVDs a long while ago and put the rest of his personal inventory in the store because he realized he wouldn’t be alive long enough to watch everything he hadn’t gotten to yet.
So why do I do it? Well, actually I do have at least one very good reason. There have been times I’ve passed on something, only to see it become unavailable or offered second-hand by someone who has jacked the price to the moon. This my wife discovered when she went looking for a Blu-ray copy of her favorite movie, The Third Man. And I’m sure glad I got those CDs of Ernst Levy, a fabulously-underrated Swiss pianist, when they were available.
And some of the credit card charges were gifts to other people. I am a rabid fanatic of Deborah Eisenberg, and will use any excuses to talk about her, and then ship, without being asked, a volume of her collected stories to the person if they appear to show even the slightest interest, meaning they scratched their nose or blinked at some time during the conversation. Deborah Eisenberg should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Still, as I surveyed my living room I realized my shelves are tight enough.
(Once a friend, seeing the shelves for the first time, exclaimed, “They’re sagging!” In college I used to flip through my record collection and remark, “I forgot I had this” to her husband. I think eventually he thought I was doing it just to annoy him, but I really did and do forget. I once ordered the exact same recording three times in a month.)
I have more short story anthologies than I’ve read.
I shouldn’t get another biography of a Revolutionary War hero until I’ve read the seven or eight I still haven’t touched.
I have enough coffeetable art books, thank you. They never capture the experience of looking at the real thing anyway.
—Ditto Beethoven CD cycles. I don’t need any more recordings of the symphonies. Or piano concertos. (The sonatas and string quartets are a different story; you can never have enough of those.) All conductors and soloists today are too reverential anyway. And forget Brahms. There isn’t one great Brahms interpreter alive.
I’m not getting volume two of David Hare’s plays until I’d read (and reread) everything in the first volume.
That book on chess endgames was a bad idea. I never read books on chess endgames. Nobody does.
I don’t need the complete works of Plato. Okay, yes I do. Bad example.
But I don’t think I’ll be ordering volume 9 of Marston’s Josef Hofmann series. I really don’t get his reputation based on what I have heard, with a few exceptions scattered here and there. (To his credit, though, he did invent the windshield wiper. Every time I’m driving and it rains I think, “I should order more Hofmann.” I wonder if that was the idea.)
The projected new Ernst Levy set, however, is mandatory when it comes out. Mandatory!
And the day Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy appears on a Criterion Blu-ray, well, I’ll be dancing a jig. Ditto The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Still, overall I’m going to be cutting back. Tightening my belt. At least till I make my way through everything I have.
I’m John, and I’m a recovering Amazon addict.
See you at the next meeting.