Wherein I am reminded of myself
[Another sip of A Republic of Books, the novel in progress, for your enjoyment]
John Yu has been coming in the shop since he was a kid. He is still a kid, but bigger. He went to MIT. He’s at the University of Pennsylvania now, though his parents still live in Brookline, where he grew up. By the time I finally took notice of him he’d been coming in the shop long enough to know the way things worked and he approached me one day, unexpectedly.
He held a book out and asked, “Why do you carry this?” Just like that.
I was kneeling in an aisle trying to maneuver a couple of extra volumes into a space too small. Our heads were about on level.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“That’s a question, not an answer.”
He had me there.
I could see the book in his hand and knew the small gray cloth volume on sight. “I don’t have a reason. It probably came in with a lot. I’m not sure I remember that copy in particular. But it’s considered a classic by many people.”
Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy is one of those novels you get used to having around. I suppose that’s especially true in Boston, where it was originally published. This copy wasn’t special other than for being a hundred years old or so. I took the book out of his hand and opened the cover to see what it said. There was a penned inscription there on the endpaper that was dated 1897.
The boy looked at me in total seriousness.
He had me again. “There is a lot of stupid writing in this shop, I am afraid. More than I can possibly know, even though I read a lot. But I do try to control that as much as I can. Generally speaking, what we have is the best of what I can find.”
“But you know this is stupid, right?”
“Yes. I read it once.”
“Then why do you carry it?”
“Because other people think highly of it, I suppose. Not really a good enough reason, I guess, but it does have an historical place, and there’s the matter of least resistance to consider.”
“Most people are pretty stupid and we have to carry enough of what people are looking for to stay in business so that we can carry the things we like. I call that obeying the laws of retailing physics.”
The blood had left my legs from squatting and I stood. But now I looked down on him and felt self-conscious about it, so I pulled a stool over and sat on that. My parenting skills were already too far behind me.
I figured the boy for ten or twelve. I was pretty sure he’d come in alone.
“But I heard you tell someone that you carry what you like.”
Again he had me. “I guess I did.”
“And you said you wouldn’t carry something you wouldn’t read yourself.”
John is a literalist. Still is. But I had an opening there. “Right. Well, I did read this.”
With only a brief hesitation, he took the book back from my hand and turned way. But now I had to ask, “Why do you think it’s stupid?”
“That’s a tautology.”
I actually said that to a kid. But he was not to be toyed with. He nodded at me a moment and then said, “Because it doesn’t explain anything. Things just happen. The guy falls asleep and then he wakes up a hundred years later. That’s not science fiction. That fantasy. I found it in the Science Fiction section.”
The force of his argument was not only in his straightforward manner but in his tone. He spoke with certainty. When I was twelve I remember being in a state of total uncertainty about everything.
“You’re right.” The issue was not a small one. I had made a big deal about the differentiation. It was one of my regular spiels. Some people think all fiction should be together. Not a bad idea, just unworkable. Too many people who read are already caught in their genre ghettos. I can’t get them out of that unless they are here long enough for me to talk to. Seeing fifty-thousand novels in alphabetical order can stymie enthusiasm. This kid had obviously been within earshot when I was explaining the difference to one of the part-timers. “So you’ve read it yourself?”
“Yes. It’s just a long lecture about socialism, only he calls it ‘nationalism.’ It’s not even a story.”
“Right. That’s they way socialism usually gets its start.” Did this kid actually know the difference? “So maybe I should put it into the politics section, under socialism.”
“I think so.”
He turned again. I was a little awestruck
“What’s your name?”
Looking Backward is still in the politics section to this day. And since that time, I had made it a regular thing to ask John what he had read and liked. I don’t have a lot of patience with science fiction. Too much of it is preaching and fantasy disguised with a hard shell of scientific extrapolation. I do like a good fantasy. Just not the mix.
At that time John was taking regular sailing lessons at the Community Boating on the Charles and he would turn up almost daily. Because he seemed so totally dedicated to the one genre, I managed a little fun out of persuading him to read things outside science fiction whenever the opportunity arose. This became easier over the years after the Lord of the Rings movies started to appear and he began to appreciate good fantasy as well. Then I got him to read Stevenson and Kipling, and Buchan as well. But my biggest success was in getting him to read poetry. This unexpected coup was brought about more by J.R.R. Tolkien than myself. Tolkien’s use of language opened that door.
It was never stated as such, but we were friends.
In time, he got to know Margaret, and avoided her when she was around. He knew my daughters. And he knew Ben. Because he was the younger, he showed some deference to the girls, but to Ben he became something of a needle. Whenever they met in the store, he would ask Ben if he had read one thing or another. Ben had rebelled somewhat against books by then and felt the challenge.
I was not surprised when John went to MIT. It was an easy fit. Better because Joe Haldeman was still teaching there and his science fiction was among the best. But I was less happy when he told me he was going away to Pennsylvania University for an engineering degree. It meant that he would be away for long stretches. This is something I had supposedly gotten used to by then with my own kids, but I felt the loss.
At this point, you understand, I had never spoken to the boy outside of the shop. I had never had a beer with him. I had never met his parents—though I knew they owned a Nanking restaurant in Newton.
I hadn’t seen John since Christmas when he came by today. And he caught me in the middle of a foul mood with Marciano’s words in my ears about his getting back to me. In John’s hands he had a small bag. He extended this to me before even saying hello.
“What is it?”
“Where is it from?”
I looked at him squarely and managed not to grin.
“Somehow I believe that is another form of tautology.”
“Perhaps.” He shook my hand and smiled that off, “It something my father’s selling at his restaurant. It’s a big deal. People love it. Knowing your taste in the matter, I thought I’d bring you some and get your opinion.”
“Wait until you’ve had some before you say.”
It is something that John looks me square in the eye these days. He started growing when he was twelve and had made a big deal of the fact that he had caught up with me by the time he left for college. By contrast, Ben starting gaining height very slowly from the time he was eight and just didn’t quit until he was actually taller. That was about enough, he said.
John beat around the aisles for awhile then, likely waiting for a quiet moment. Finally he cornered me at the desk again.
“I want to join up.”
“With the military? You mean, enlist?”
“No, with the revolution.”
I immediately knew where he was headed with this. He had been reading my posts on the website. He knew something about what was going on.
“You already did that a long time ago. When you were a kid. They’ll hang you with the rest of us now.”
“You’re always serious. I keep telling you to lighten up.”
“Look whose talking. . . . Something’s going on. You’re doing something. Let me help.”
The lovely Ardis had came in for her shift. She heard this when she came over to say hello. I saw her shake her head.
“It’s all a joke to Michael. He thinks it’s a prank. He thinks they’re all maroons and can’t get out of their own way.”
John gave her the solemn look of that boy I had first really met one day a dozen years before.
Never one to forget, he said, “This is not just dumb. It’s stupid. I’ve been reading the stuff that people are posting online in the comments to those stories in The Post. People that don’t even read books and never came in here once in their lives. What they’re saying is ridiculous! This is dangerous! There’s going to be trouble. I want to help.”
“Buy a book.”
“I mean it.”
“I mean it too. What am I supposed to do? Someone is having a revolution but I wasn’t invited. For my part, I just want to change a few things that I’m sure of. Not everything. I’m not smart enough to want to change everything.”
“What can I do?”
“What you are doing is fine. It’s all anyone can do, I think. I’m revolting, you might say, but I’m not having a revolution. No one would come. . . . Except you. “
There were customers for me to help and John wandered away again. He spent most of his time in general fiction these days. He came back when it was quiet again with a large Solzhenitsyn volume.
I told him, “Given the mood you’re in, maybe you need something lighter. Some Wodehouse maybe.”
“It was either this or The Zen of Golf. I’m told that I should learn how to play golf.”
“I don’t have The Zen of Golf. Why don’t you just watch Tin Cup. Renee Russo’s worth the cost of the DVD. I do have some good books on fly-fishing. But I guess you should stick with the Gulag. You should have studied more literature anyway.”
“I did. Right here in this place. You were my instructor.”
“I meant, academically. I don’t know what kind of engineer you are. Probably a good one. But you would be a fine writer.”
“Maybe I will write. Your favorite, Nevil Shute, he was an engineer and a writer too. But if I’d studied literature in college they would’ve beaten all that out of me. They would have proven that the bumble bee can’t fly. It’s all politics at the university now. Almost everything. Engineering is the last refuge of reason. I’m telling you. I have friends who were literature majors and I saw what they had to wade through in order to learn something about Shakespeare. Habermas and his Frankfurt School of Marxist critical theory—Hegel and Kant, Freud and Jung, Webber and Simmel. Form over content. All that structuralist crap! That always got me. Structuralist! A house of cards has more structure! Those maroons wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the hermetically sealed hothouses at the university.”
I was impressed. Ardis was wide-eyed. This was as emotional as John had ever been in the shop.
“Do you remember when I first told you what a ‘maroon’ was?”
“Sure. Right there.” He pointed toward the counter. “ In front of your wife. You called somebody a ‘maroon.’ And she told you not to do that in public. Something like that. She said it differently.”
“She said I was an idiot for telling a customer something like that. She was always worried about losing customers, but not so much about offending me.”
“And you told her you’d say what you damned well pleased in your own store. And I think she left then. I remember you were alone when I asked you what was wrong with the color maroon. I thought maybe it was racist or something. And you said it was. The whole world was broken into two races. The maroons and the rest. And if I did not know that yet, I should go home and watch more Bugs Bunny!”
“You argued with me.”
“Yes, I did. But once I understood, I asked if someone who was a maroon could redeem themselves.”
“Worse than that! You big nerd! You asked me to define race!”
“Well, it was at the heart of the issue, wasn’t it?”
“When I finally said you were correct, because race was a matter of the physical characteristics you were born with, and being a maroon was learned, you were very happy. You pranced around like a cock.”
“It was only the second time I’d won an argument with you.”
“Unfortunately for me, not the last. But I didn’t argue the first time. You were right. Remember? But I think I have another reply to that other argument now. How can coffee be ‘Chinese?’ Dark or light, bitter or sweet. But Chinese? Are there races of coffee? If coffee can be Chinese, can’t maroon be a race as well?”
“Give it up. You’ve lost.”