is killing ourselves to death

[A mote from the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, more of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site.]


‘I remember ye olde bookshoppe.’ This will undoubtedly be the subject of countless internet articles in the coming years as the last of us disappear—no, not the internet that we know today. By Moore’s Law, that will be thrice gone, but the names for the bookish parts will still be used, just the way they now abuse so many book terms to identify the ephemeral elements of digital word processing. But what will be recalled in that waxing of nostalgia, will in fact have never been. Just another joke in the dustbin of history.

The bookshop that will be so fondly remembered, like the Momma of our common childhood, will be sans all the angst, and anger, and boredom, and heartache. And the dust. The bill-paying will be the first thing overlooked, just as the bills themselves once were. (I’m sure I sent a check. I’ll speak to the bookkeeper about it tomorrow.) The worry about ordering will be recalled vaguely. (How did we end up with twelve copies of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and no Milton?) The boredom of stocking will be made little of. (Should Federico Garcia Lorca go under ‘G’ or ‘L.’) The cleaning and sweeping and straightening will be assumed. (There’s another dead mouse under the bottom shelf in the cooking section. What did they eat that killed them?) Catastrophic electrical and plumbing problems will be ignored. (Like the time a customer clogged the toilet and continued to flush it so many times it overflowed, shorting out the electricity as well.) Rude customers will be remade into picaresque caricature. (Rictus face presented—do I look like someone who would read Danielle Steele?) Anxious authors will be forgiven their demands. (‘I don’t drink bottle water. I drink Perrier.’ ) The failure to recognize a title, or an author, or a subject, on demand will be glossed over by the reminiscence of how the perfect book had been so often suggested by the canny bookseller. (I just loved it! How did you know?) Yet, all that will be beside the point.

In fact the great age of bookselling was almost over by the time I began in the trade. Just as I was told by my boss at the Boylston Street bookshop where I worked in the early nineteen-seventies. His reasoning was never proffered, not that I would have listened. But he said more than once, “They’re like boxes of cornflakes now. Move those Rice Krispies over here. Stack those boxes of Wheaties there. Order some more Cocoa Puffs—we’re almost out.” Another time he compared the books to boxes of detergent. But the point was made. We dealt in angulate objects, not the inky pentimento of souls. We were moving rectangular pieces of reprocessed wood pulp and rag that had been mischievously soiled by ink. You could read the review in the Times—you don’t have to waste your time reading the book.

My boss, already then in his own seventies, was born at the very end of the previous century. He had been a bookman all his adult life except for a brief respite during which he got himself gassed by his own military command due to a change of wind at the Second Somme. An entire life, pissed away—breathed with a wheeze. But proudly. He was a ‘bookman’ after all. An ancient profession. And he told us repeatedly that he was the last of the breed. And he might well have been. My own efforts seem feeble by comparison.

The problem was not my boss’s fault. He would gladly have carried on in the old fashion. But already the back-lists were being emptied for tax purposes. Publisher’s advertising was being concentrated on fewer titles. Publisher’s themselves were being amalgamated. The corporate practices of the cereal food manufactures had overtaken the the quaint publishing ‘houses’ of poetry, essays, epics and epistolaries.

In the first volume of his great two volume philosophical work The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl popper wrote,

“. . . the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” His prescience in this, as in much else, has long made him a non-person in the college classroom. But in my youth, his voice was as loud as it was singular.

And that is the ‘bookseller’s paradox’ as well—but much exacerbated by the need to pay the rent. Should I carry Danielle Steele in the shop, on the same shelf as Stendhal? Do I make room for another recent Marxist diatribe in place of an obscure libertarian author? I carried works by Lysander Spooner, Albert Jay Nock, Benjamin Tucker and Max Stirner that sat on the shelf gathering dust for over thirty years while Jean-Paul Sartre, Herbert Marcuse, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault had to be re-ordered over and again. But Stirner and Tucker, Spooner and Nock would have been fine with my little Republic of Books, while Derrida and Foucault, Sartre and Marcuse would want to burn me down. In the case of Popper, I made the more constant effort to interest browsers in his work and succeeded to some small degree. Maybe two copies against six of Marcuse, while ignoring the loss of battles with an eye toward the larger war. But Popper was right, as he so often proves to be. Feeding my enemies did not make them appreciate my efforts, but made them stronger.

But placing Marcuse on the shelf with Popper creates a physical as well as moral equivalency in a time when the art of reading is lost. True, they are both books, but not of equal value. And though I might have the opportunity to suggest one over the other if asked, it is more likely that the browser will know the other from some current reference in this benighted age, or worse, have been assigned to read the Marcusean text to make the grade. Should I abet this intellectual murder? This suicide? No, . . . perhaps it is better seen as euthanasia, and a more peaceful passing of the West before the apocalypse.

The olden bookshop of memory was an open society of books written for the pleasure of writing and reading as much or more even than to educate. And that is the key which has been lost. To educate was to enlighten, not restrict, and there was delight to be had there. Such a chamber was a cluttered and ill-lit place because there was always more to read, to do, and to understand, and what was shiny was suspect simply for being unused. Most often, these days, a young bookseller working in a clean and well lighted place will say, ‘I love books’ and they will mean ‘I love certain books. The ones I like.’ It is another form of tautology. And the ones they like are the ones they have been taught to like. And they spend their time on the neat and dust free internet visiting those particular sites that tell them that they are right. And besides, they are allergic to dust.