Thursday, April 2, 2009

West's Disease

Back in the old days, when people drank tap water, and wrapped their fish in newspapers, and kept a dime in their pockets in case they needed to make an emergency phone call, you had to travel a ways to buy a book. I grew up on the Island in Tackytown, in one of those thousand square foot Cape Cods built on 50 x 100 sandlots. Hell, you could sod the thing for three years running and still wind up with a dirt yard. Vinyl pool out back, carport with its fiberglas roof on the side. Books were as rare as black diamonds out there. Cars had taken over and the TV was comin on strong.

Booksellers were rarer still, unless you counted the Signet spinner rack down at Franklin Drugs. That's where I bought the Rouse translation of Homer's Iliad. Effin great war story, Achilles, Hector, blood and guts, talking gods. I may have learned a lot of things since then -- some of it amusing, most of it shite -- but that was the book, and that was the act of reading, that made me sweat, and close my eyes, and lose myself. Been a dreamy boy since, always a book in my bag.

Franklin Drugs was a special kingdom. That's where you went for Grandma's prescriptions, cotton gauze pads, Bufferin, merthiolate, and Vicks VapoRub, but that's also where you tested vacuum tubes in the strange machine with big dials, bought birthday cards, found the right battery for your transistor radio, and browsed the book rack. Jack London, Ice Station Zebra, Irwin Shaw, George Gamow, Romeo and Juliet, Mickey Spillane, Animal Farm. I picked out The Double Helix cause of its cover and that word helix, but I dint understand it and put it back. Short stories by Daphne Du Maurier -- I just liked saying her name out loud -- and always books about calories. Fail-Safe and Seven Days in May. You think the world has changed that much, poot? Drugstore's where my mother bought Bride of Pendorric. After that, she read every book by Victoria Holt.

Every coupla weeks the rack was full again, and sometimes there were titles there I hadn't seen before, even at the library. I never saw who filled it up, but I knew it wasn't Mr. Gold who owned the store and made up the prescriptions. It was effin magic, just like Oz before you looked behind the curtain. After I got involved in the book racket, old-timers told me gangsters owned the trucks that delivered the books, but I dint buy it whole hog.

Now you got these so-called "superstores" -- idiotic name -- every coupla miles or so around here, with walls of books, armchairs, chocolate and coffee, and sulky post-adolescent males standin behind a computer at a so-called information desk, where they have access to all the information in the world except the information you're lookin for, who start conversin by walkie-talkie with watery-eyed retirees workin there cause they need a job and they love books, and of course they're willin to walk you around to every section in the store to find that special title you're lookin for, all the while givin you an update on their current enthusiasms. And after half an hour or so, you begin to get discouraged, your knees get wobbly and you hear a faint buzzin whose source escapes you. Too many books, too many shelves, too many tables, too many magazines, too much coffee, too much carpet, too many signs, too many stickers, too much space, way too much space. And too little knowledge.

Quist lived in big house behind a boxwood hedge, built long before the war. He'd light his pipe and give me the business. "Be careful what you wish for, poot. If they give you too much choice in the matter, you might freeze up and make no choice at all. It's happenin more and more these days. Think of all the crap that's comin on the market. And all the bull they shovel on Madison Avenue. Listen -- go after the one thing you really want and don't get distracted. And remember, once you grow up, you gotta stop wishin for something else and start makin do with what you got."

Sittin here by the lake on a sunny April mornin, settlin down after a spell on the road, listenin to the occasional jet whine as it makes that big turn toward Newark, I can't help but think about Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice and that scene in The Day of the Locust when Donald Sutherland lies back in his chaise lounge and closes his eyes. Homer Simpson.

The book business -- hell, it's all wishful thinking. Especially now, when you can find anything, and even get it zapped to your e-reader in a minute, and all it does is feed your discouragement and anxiety, cause there's still so much more to choose from. No way you can get to it all. No way you can be the person you wish you were.

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