(a sequel to The Republic of Books)
a novel with a virus
[ Portions of this chapter were originally published at https://amgreatness.com/ ]
- The Republic is dead
Two hundred and thirty-four years after Ben Franklin issued his warning on the occasion of its beginning, we couldn’t keep it.
The Republic is dead. To pretend otherwise after the government usurpations of authority in recent years would be delusional, which I certainly have been. I wanted to believe otherwise. But this state of affairs has been true at least since shortly after September 11, 2001, and the panicked passage of an unconstitutional Patriot Act and increased during the erstwhile war on terror, which has since been so terribly lost.
True, much of the public is unaware, “I didn’t even know it was sick,” they might say, preoccupied as they always are with earning a living and cleaning the gutters—but this is usually the case, until it isn’t. Remember, the farmers of New Jersey, prosperous and happy as they were, could not care less about the revolution in 1776 until the British troops in their New York winter quarters, began to forage for the necessary food for their horses and the forces of the American rebellion began working to deprive them of that necessary treat.
Before a dark age of technologically enhanced authoritarian rule descends—an age that I believe will not soon end—this brief time of passage must be taken as a last opportunity to recover our lost liberty. But what can the minority who are aware of their loss do? Certainly, any attempt at forcing the issue through violent revolution would only deepen the tragedy and coalesce support of the majority around the status quo. What then, can be done?
I no longer have the original copy of this beginning; the authorities having removed my website and all the copy there shortly after I closed my bookshop. Even now, working from my truck in various parking lots for internet access has meant that I often fail to keep hard copy. There is always something else to do. But I will work around this as much as possible in the future.
The judge at my hearing, an unpleasant woman with poor diction and a whiny voice, accused me of inciting riot and rebellion with such statements. I argued, “rebellion certainly, but riot, never.”
My lawyer, Marty Guinn, told me to keep quiet.
As it happens, after at last enjoying my one Thoreauvian night in jail, I have been forbidden to leave the state.
But I have asked, what can be done?
So, I left.
Deirdre is along for the ride. Reluctantly, I think. She is a free-lancer now that her newspaper has let her go for writing once too often about me, but she wasn’t sure she should take the next step and leave Boston. She was in that debate with herself, but out loud in front of me, while I was staying at her place for the couple of weeks it took me to get things squared away. But I won and she lost. I think.
Out of a guilty conscience, the FBI agent who was in charge of screwing everything up, Doug Evans, had given me his old Yellowstone Cavalier camper free and clear, but I registered it in my son Ben’s name so that it wouldn’t be attached by a creditor, namely the State. It’s a sixteen-foot aluminum covered box painted in the original two-tone white and pale blue, still solid, made sometime back in the 1960s, but it’s been taken good care of. Evidently, Doug Evans’ father was a maniac about leaks. Good thing. The axil is relatively new, maybe ten years old, because the old one broke somewhere in the Ozarks about ten miles from a camper sales and repair outfit.
Thankfully, my son Ben stayed around for a week longer and helped me remove everything from the inside that might be useful if we were actually going camping so that we could install the bookshelves on the walls instead. Most of the walls are covered with a nice old wood veneer and they are perfect for that. He had talked his mother into letting me use a vacant space in the garage for this project and as each piece of the interior—the toilet, the stove, the refrigerator—was removed we set it out on the curb in the ally and it was gone in an hour.
I intended to use my sleeping bag on a slab of foam for comfort, and if need be, that could even fit on the desk I have set up at the front end, close by the door on the right side. The trailer has another door at the rear and that’s what I intended to use as the public entrance. But with Deirdre along, we’ll be sleeping on the floor between the shelves in the trailer, with the books rising close at either side. It’s an awesome feeling to me. Perhaps not so much for her.
The shelves, all uniform three-foot lengths, are ones I’d saved from the old store when I dismantled what hadn’t sold in the last days. I’ve converted those by attaching two together at what would be the back edge and setting them on metal pins in the sideboards, but at an angle to counter the rock of the trailer, using gravity to keep the books in place. Forty-nine shelf sections total. Space for about 1500 books displayed spine out.
Because we were working just next door in the garage, I couldn’t help looking in at the window of the old store. Nothing to see but what is in my head. The interior is dark because they haven’t started work there yet. The reflection on the glass caught one of my old neighbors watching me and I figure I looked pretty pitiful, so I didn’t do that again. Better for me to get away as soon as possible.
But then, I was unsure how far I would actually get. The Yellowstone Cavalier is over fifty years old, but my truck is over thirty and already has more than 150,000 miles on it. The court ruled that I could keep it only because it was worthless for resale and my lawyer, Marty Guinn, convinced them that I needed it to earn whatever living I could. Marty was very good about not asking me what I actually intended to do, but that might have been so he wouldn’t be implicated in any of it.
I told both Deidre and Ben what I could, of course. Deidre wanted to know what my plan was, immediately. When I told her that I really didn’t have one, just a notion of one, it didn’t help, so I made one up on the spot.
“Do you know what direction you’re going in?”
“You are not a young man anymore.”
“Then south, and then a little west again and then north again. But mostly west.”
She shook her head at me, not for the first time.
Ben knows me too well, so he didn’t press for details—though he liked the idea of me selling books from a trailer. He is young enough to still have a few romantic notions of his own. He is still an idealist. I told him to read the old Christopher Morley book, Parnassus on Wheels, because that’s been occupying space in my own head for about sixty years. It might explain a little something.
He says, “But what are you going to do to fight them? You have to fight them! I know you’re broke, but you have friends. You could open another shop!”
One more time, I said, “But that would just fail again, only quicker. And as Deidre’s been saying more often than I want to hear it, I’m not a young man anymore. If I were your age, I’d already be gone. All I used to need was a change of clothes and my thumb. But it’s not just my age. Those days are over. It’s not the same country anymore.”
“Then, what are you going to do?”
That was a matter, wasn’t it?
Going back to First Principles would help—both for myself and the world I’m living in. But reforming such an obviously corrupt system as ours is possible only if an alternative is evident. The general public might still be won over by a presentation of practical ideas that sound vaguely familiar (in that they are soundly based on the wisdom of The Founders) if done with the kindness of friendly persuasion rather than with a gun. Given my own resources and the fact that there are no other shops that carry my own novels, I thought I had a fairly reasonable idea, that I should go back to the early days of the Republic and become a ‘book peddler.’ A ‘Parson Weems.’ A literary hawker. A book canvasser, not exactly door to door but State to State.
I could start by selling all of my own collection—not just the ones I’ve written but the thousand or so that lost their home when I lost my apartment. And then there are the twenty boxes with my 451 favorites. I’ve already given copies of most of them to my children. I might as well sell those now too.
Let me offer a few examples.
The Federalist Papers. I have two different editions of that masterpiece of political thought by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, one paperback and one hard. And two different editions of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. I am partial to the George Lawrence translation, but I have the Harvey Mansfield edition as well. I have copies of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, as subversive a book as you might find, and Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, combined with the more subtle Walden. I have a hardcover of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a book that first brought the ‘rebellion’ to outer space—at least for me. And there’s plenty more where that came from.
Importantly, if not crucially, a majority of the American public still consider. themselves Christian. That I am not, is of no importance to the matter. We have flourished for most of the past two hundred years within the sheltering of a Pax-Americana, in no small part based on a Christian ethic. So I have some C. S. Lewis for that, including more than one edition of The Abolition of Man, Mere Christianity, and The Screwtape Letters, as well as The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away, and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
Also, a significant minority of Americans call themselves ‘conservative,’ though it seems this much-abused terminology might be appropriated by anyone who does not see themselves as ‘liberal.’ As a libertarian, I am again out of that mix, but I’ve often found sympathy and something in common with conservatives and that has, of course, made me persona non-grata among those who lean to the left. They don’t want any fraternizing. Ideologues are like that. Nevertheless, I have Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, and Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, Edmund Burke’s French Revolution, and The Analects of Confucius.
Unfortunately, an even larger minority think of themselves as ‘independent,’ a state of mind that might indicate psychosis or at least laziness, but could make them potential converts to some sort of alternative. I suppose anything I have might fill that void.
Then there are always the ‘libertarians,’ that amalgam of oddballs that Russell Kirk called the ‘chirping sectaries,’ to which I myself belong. Whatever they call themselves, they are always less than ten percent of the population but often manage to swing elections to the authoritarian left by pretending to be true to some principle or another not properly advocated by the right. No irony in that, just divine justice, I suppose. Most of us are agnostics or worse. But I have the two volumes of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies, though it won’t be as cheap as I’d like because copies of that are harder to get these days. I’ve got a couple of titles by Ludwig von Mises including my old copy of Human Action, which I have decided I will never finish after all. It’s too damned long and there are no jokes. But some student might want to take the challenge. For the radicals, I have Murray Rothbard’s Man, State and Economy. For the soft-core libertarians I have Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, and Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.
But, after all this political jag, which is just the stuff that has the Feds so upset, what I have by far the most of—at least a thousand volumes of—is fiction. From the several by Jane Austen to Edith Wharton’s Summer. I also have William Dean Howells’ Indian Summer, as a matter of fact, and much by Howells old friend, Mark Twain, including the adventures of both Tom Sawyer and his buddy Huckleberry Finn in nice hardcover editions from the University of California. And I have two different editions of Moby Dick.
Sadly, my drama section is down to a bunch of Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, but I’ll be getting more. And the poetry section is far too small, but it ranges from Frost to Yeats with only a few dozen in between.
I have a nice little history section, from Gibbon’s Rome, and Norma Lorre Goodrich’s Britain, Victor Davis Hansen’s Greece, to several on the American scene by David McCullough, and, because of their convenient size, a bunch of the Lakeside Classics. There is a good lot of biography as well, from several of the Boswell journals to Kenneth Robert’s I Wanted to Write, a forgotten gem. And I have a nice collection of essays, from Jacques Barzun’s The Culture We Deserve to E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat.
And there’s more, as the fellow used to say on late-night TV, but I think I have drawn a fine enough picture of what I’m doing.
Another course of action, of course, is to identify the ‘enemy,’ those who would enslave the population to the whims of the oligarchy that now rules. Most people, like those New Jersey farmers of old, are not the enemy and should not be treated as such. They would most simply like to be left alone. On this point, they have my complete sympathy.
But I think it is easy to see, despite the burgeoning population of individuals who would prefer to have the State take care of them, that those in power have at best a minority of support for their own agenda. That they currently control the reins of power might be taken as unsurmountable, but in truth is a liability, much the way it was with the old Soviets. They are, by nature, an incompetent lot, or else they would not be working for the government in the first place. Government work is all they are good enough for.
Whatever the situation, the authoritarians will always screw things up. No matter that they blame everyone else for their incompetence, food is needed for the horses. Farmers will not like to have their crops taken from them. It is easier not to grow. The power grid will fail. It is not necessary to sabotage the sources of our energy because limiting or stopping coal and gas production will drive up the cost of fuel until it becomes prohibitive, trucks will not roll, brown-outs and then black-outs will become common. And the medical profession, already under great strain, will be forced to triage patients. Older people like myself will be the first to go. Then the children. (Well, with on-demand abortions, that number will be far smaller, but still).
It’s another reason to get out and see what I can before they kill me.
But, why so glum? It is a romantic idea, really—being an outlaw bookseller. It harkens back to the Renaissance and the Inquisition, to Francois Villon and Thomas Malory. Some good stuff there. But for now, I must be content with following in the lesser wake of Christopher Morley and his Parnassus on Wheels. Selling one book at a time, and hoping for the enlightenment to come.
[ Tune in next week for chapter two ]