In the past year, not including the 30 or so I just gave back to my nonprofit organization, I have acquired 153 books at no cost, of which I’ve read approximately ten. Just thought you should know.
1) Have enough money to invest in the stock market (THIS IS IMPORTANT).
2) Invent a time machine (THIS IS THE TRICKY PART).
3) Go back in time to January 5, 2012.
4) Buy as many shares of Barnes & Noble as you can afford.
5) Wait around a couple of months.
Robin is OCD, or has OCD, or whatever the preferred nomenclature is for people with obsessive compulsive disorder. At our first book sale, last September in the basement of a church where I do most of my work, she told me as much.
“I just, I go down there, and everything’s out of order and all over the place!” she said, visibly exasperated. Robin is short, wiry, and birdlike. She has a white mid-sixties Beatles’ haircut, thick rimmed shields for glasses, and she never looks you in the eye when she talks. She walks with a pronounced limp, but I’ve never asked her about it because I don’t want to come across as rude.
“We didn’t have time to organize it,” I explained at the time. This was last September, Indian Summer, a sunny Saturday afternoon, and I was telling Robin the truth. The day of the sale it was Marc and me, a chapel filled with chairs , my dungeon on the other side of the church basement stacked to the ceilings with books, and eight hours to set the whole thing up for opening night. We did not concern ourselves with putting all of the Harry Potters with the other Harry Potters. We concerned ourselves with hauling ass.
Robin was having none of it. “Listen, when I go to a book sale I don’t want to be looking all over the place trying to find what I want. That’s just crazy! I’m OCD, and I swear,” she said, shaking her head, “I just want to go around organizing everything! It’s like a madhouse down there!” At the time, I took her complaints to be a minor annoyance on an otherwise beautiful late summer day. But my boss, manning the cash register, had heard it all downstairs before me, and she had signed Robin on as a volunteer for our next book sale.
These days, Robin devotes her time to the kids’ room. She spends hours upon hours putting, say, the Full House collection of Mary-Kate and Ashley stories in chronological order. She has an R.L. Stine section, a parenting section, a boardbook section arranged according to the genus and species of the title animal. Which is to say, it is under control in the kids’ room, because Robin is on top of that shit. When we had a group of twenty Raytheon HR volunteers come in to physically put all of the boxed books on the shelves… when Robin came in the day after that, with everything misplaced and disorganized and crazy — but, crucially now, on the shelves – well, she just about fainted. And then she spent the next three days in that little 8×12 box, putting everything in its right place for the sale.
Today I put a rock between the back door and the doorjamb, not just because it’s nice out, but because Robin can’t handle stairs well and the rear entrance only has one little step. She’s due to arrive at noon, and I’ve been clearing out bins all morning, boxing things up for her to fiddle with. She doesn’t ask for much. None of the volunteers do. When my boss and I sat down with them for the first time and asked them what they might like to make their volunteer time a bit more pleasant, they were only so extravagant as to request a radio. I haven’t heard them listen to it once.
“Hey, Robin,” I greet her as she walks in. “How are ya?”
“I’m good, Tom. How are you?”
“Oh, you know. Books, books, books.”
She laughs, awkward.
“I’ve got three or four boxes waiting for you in the other room, and I’ll have another one for you before I take off for the day,” I tell her.
“Great. I guess I’ll get right to it, then,” Robin says.
When I bring the last box in for her a little while later, I notice that “The Te of Piglet,” companion/follow-up to “The Tao of Pooh,” is sitting on a table beside her purse. “This is actually an adult book,” I say.
“Oh, I know,” Robin says, trails off, and turns a bit red. I realize that she’s planning to take it home with her, and that she probably feels like she’s just been caught stealing. Let me put it to you like this: if you come to my bookstore and alphabetize books for free for fifteen hours a week, you can have a “Te of Piglet” whenever you please.
“You should check it out, I’ve heard good things,” I say. “‘The Tao of Pooh’ is supposed to be good, too.” I head to the door and wave. “Have a good weekend, Robin. Thanks for all your help.”
I get to the main office/occasional-impromptu-bookstore around half past one. Rose is in the back room, consolidating tattered mass market paper backs into those cardboard trays beer sometimes comes in. You know the ones. The book sale we hosted last weekend kind of went bananas, and the three rooms we’ve taken over on the first floor, to flood with shelves and boxes and tables full of books, are a mess. Rose is a volunteer, probably in her 70′s, five foot nothing, round but nimble — an avid walker. I don’t really need her to be sorting through mass market paperbacks. I’d just as soon throw them all away — there’s certainly no dearth of them. But she’s restoring a semblance of order to the place, which is appreciated. And when I get to the point where I do need her to do something, she’ll do it. I couldn’t really ask for much more from a volunteer.
Rose once called me on a Friday night at around eight o’clock, just around dinnertime. I was in New York City for the weekend. I was, if you can believe it, eating dinner because, as mentioned, it was just around dinnertime. I was, moreover, eating a dinner that my, um, “friend” had prepared for me — the very first meal she had ever cooked for me, as a matter of fact. So, of course: phone number I don’t recognize from an area code in Massachusetts while I’m on a date? I better answer that call!
“Hi, Tom, it’s Rose.”
Rose, Rose… who on earth is Rose? Ohhh. Rose. ”Um, hi… Rose? What’s, uhm, up?” Waving to pretty lady across table, This will only be a second, promise.
“Well, I was thinking, I can get you all the leftover books from the library sale in Marblehead. Do you have a minute? You aren’t eating dinner or anything, are you?”
“No, yeah, no, it’s fine. I ju–”
“Well, what we could do is…”
It was only a couple minutes later, when Rose said something about how we could discuss her plan to get books “tomorrow” since I was “going to be at work” (she was thinking about stopping by the office to help set up the book sale, anyway, and why not kill two birds with one stone, right?), that I realized she probably didn’t really keep track of her weekdays all that well.
“I’m actually in New York City this weekend, Rose.” I made sure to emphasize how very weekend it was. “I probably won’t be back at work until Tuesday. But we can definitely talk about it then.”
“Oh, is today Friday already? Well, how about that, you’re right.”.
In the end the two of us did end up making the NYC-dinner-date-interrupting trip to Marblehead to salvage thirty boxes of unwanted books. I chauffeured in the company dump truck. “When you said you had a truck, you really meant it,” Rose said as she opened the door. I have rarely feared more for a person’s life than watching Rose try to climb into the passenger seat that day. It was like watching a grape trying to do the monkey bars. My plan was that if she let go of the oh-shit handle and started to fall, I’d grab her arm and hold her up. It’s only now that I realize I probably just would have dislocated her shoulder if that’d happened. Or, like, ripped the entire arm right off. You can pluck a stem from a grape pretty easily, after all.
So today, when I’ve finally finished sifting through a giant blue laundry hamper full of books and magazines books and three ring binders and books and video tapes and CDs and books, I ask Rose if she can give the mass-markets a rest and put all the non-fiction books I’ve boxed up onto the appropriate shelves in the non-fiction room. “I’ll wheel them in on the dolly and put the boxes on the tables. Can you just go through them and plop the books down where they belong?” (The volunteers have established a weird genre-bending, pseudo-Dewey decimal shelving system for the non-fiction room. I let them roll with it because it’s less work for me, and because it seems to make them happy. It’s all about the illusion of control, I guess.)
“Sure, yep. I can do that,” Rose says. And that’s exactly what we do.
I found a copy of “Flags of Our Fathers” signed by the author himself, John McCain, today. (You might remember me talking about his daughter yesterday.) It’s in terrific shape (fine/near fine for those who care about these things), but it’s only worth $15 so I’m going to hold onto it until he’s dead. And then I’ll bequeath it to my children, who will be instructed to hold onto it until they’re dead. And then maybe one day, many generations hence, some distant spawn of mine will find it in an attic somewhere in a cave (we’ll be living in caves by then) and exclaim, “Holy moly, this thing must be worth a mint!” But it won’t be, because John McCain isn’t Abraham Lincoln, and nobody in the future will ever give a shit about him.
A signed copy of Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father,” I should add, is currently fetching anywhere from $500-$2000 on Amazon. And those are softcover reprints. My copy of McCain’s book is a first edition, first printing, hardback.
Suck it, McCain!
Added: A signed copy of Sarah Palin’s brilliant “Going Rogue” — first edition, first printing — is going for $24.97.
(You can look up Biden at your leisure, though I don’t know if he’s written a book. And for what it’s worth, a signed copy of Tip O’Neill’s memoirs that I came across — and that I was certain was my ticket to financial security — also only ended up being worth, like, twentybux. But, still. Suck it, McCain!)
How had I not read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer until now? Some kind of neglect, I guess, by my family, my teachers, myself… I’m both jealous of and inspired by the kid’s ease in unapologetic, hyper-vivid and energized living. It occurs to me that he’s kindof the anti-Buddha. Everything matters. Even suffering is to be savored. A tick is worth more than a newly lost tooth to some people, and a newly lost tooth more than a tick to others. And there are very good reasons, in both cases in the moment the exchange was made, why. And those reasons matter.
That’s all for now. Still got two-hundred pages to devour. And then HUCK FINN! which Hemingway said he’d forfeit a guaranteed income of a million dollars a year (back in the 30s — so like a gazillion in 2012 dollars) for the chance to read again for the first time. To some people reading a great book for the first time is worth more than a gazillion dollars a year in guaranteed income for the rest of their lives. To others that’d seem absurd. I’d like to be of the former group. I’d prob take the money tho.
I can still tell you, without a doubt, that this is the stupidest review of the movie that you will read.
That post title doesn’t make any sense, but fuck it. The first Hunger Games movie comes out this weekend, and even though the books were goddamn addictive, and even though it’s already broken online movie ticket sales records, and even though the movie currently has an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing, and even though I already have tickets for Saturday, and even, umm, though… crap. Yeah, I don’t know where I’m going with this. The point is, there’s been some pseudo controversy surrounding the trilogy ever since the first installment was published because it’s similar to a 1999 Japanese novel called Battle Royale that was also made into movies soon after. Except those movies were made in Japan. By the Japanese. And that means they have trailers like this:
Which, as you can see, is friggin’ disabled, but is a little grittier than this next one, which was re-cut for the recent Blu-ray release:
They also make sequels with trailers like this:
And reading it back, I can see how this post might sound almost racist, which is too bad, because the punchline was supposed to be, “Now instead of going to the theater on Saturday, I’m moving to Japan.” But instead it’s this stupid meta-commentary that nobody wants to read. Meh.
(I am interested to see how an American director plans on showing kid after kid killing one another though. The books certainly don’t pull any punches in that respect, but I feel like too much directness could turn off American audiences.)
I’ve read most of Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection “How to Be Alone” over the course of the past week, and one of the overarching themes of the book, aside from the rather obvious “reading teaches you how to be alone, dummy,” is a certain earnest sadness about the decline of the novel. It’s a sadness I share, even if my reading patterns have very much skewed nonfiction for the past decade. Franzen laments that when we haven’t turned to movies, teevees, iPhones, and Internet porn in place of the novel, we’ve turned to memoirs and personal essays. The “serious” novel — whose publication is seen as cultural event — is doomed. There won’t be another “Catch-22,” or another “Old Man and the Sea.” When an exception pops up (Franzen’s own, more recent “Freedom,” e.g.), it only cements the point: “serious” novels have been turned into novelties.
I work for a company that sells donated books on the Internet. I sift through book donations on the regular. I’ve seen and dealt with tens of thousands of books. Probably hundreds of thousands. No. Definitely hundreds of thousands. In that time, I’ve seen David Foster Wallace books precisely twice, and I brought them home both times (perk of the job). I’ve seen “Freedom” enough that I was able to get two different copies of its first printing and keep the nicer one for myself, while giving the lesser to my probable-future-brother-in-law (sorry, PFBIL!) for Christmas. Where was I going with this again?
Oh right. People don’t read “serious” novels anymore, says Franzen. They read James Patterson and Danielle Steel. And memoirs. Aside from the occasional breakout hit like “The Shipping News,” it’s memoirs and mass markets all the way down. Our collective imagination — the manifestation of our cultural capacity to be alone — is suffering as a result. Or so it’s argued, broadly speaking. Franzen wants us to learn to be alone again, and the key is to read more “serious” literature. “Of course he does,” you say, “He hawks ‘serious’ fiction. What novelist wouldn’t want a coordinated ICBM nuclear strike on Comcast and Verizon and DirecTV, and whoever else out there happens to be in the cable business?” (The
writer speaker admits to not having cable, and therefore being better than you.) “What novelist wouldn’t want the memoir to be banned? THEY’D SELL MORE FUCKING BOOKS THAT WAY! Bonanza! Domino, motherfucker!”
(I should be clear that I’m probably misremembering this rueful emphasis on the memoir replacing the “serious” novel and that I’m too lazy to look it up right now. I don’t think it’s as bad as I make it out to be, though. I kept reading the essays, anyway. They’re pretty good. [And yes, that was me covering my ass in case Jonathan Franzen's wife, following in the footsteps of Marjorie Walsh's Creeper Husband, has a Google News alert set up for her spouse, and is going to come into my comment section to defend her better half, guns blazing.])
At any rate.
Though I personally would blame Frank McCourt (or, hell, even Jack Kerouac) for the current preference for memoir over fiction in American literary sensibilities, there’s a really great essay over at The American Scholar that suggests that the real villain is our boy F. Scott Fitzgerald. Consider:
The publication of the “Crack-Up” essays looks now like a sharp pivot, marking a fundamental change in American consciousness and therefore in narrative voice, an evident moment when the center of authorial gravity shifted from the “omniscience” afforded by fiction’s third person to the presumption (accurate or not) of greater authenticity provided by the first-person voice with all its limitations.
Whitman had set American poetry on this road a few generations earlier: the voice of “Song of Myself” belongs to a lyric essayist, contending with himself and his time, using the personal self as the representative of the national type, fusing the individual to history. And the presence of faux memoirists as narrators in American fiction—including Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s own Nick Adams, and before that the narrators of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick—also betrays a preference for the first-person voice.
The “Crack-Up” essays are a similar poetic project. Fitzgerald’s strangled cry in them makes clear that a lyric impulse links the personal essay with poetry, even though essays are a prose form and seem to pose a chronic scourge (or companion) to their apparent kin—narrative fiction. In fact, the essay inhabits an intermediate territory between story and poem. That may be its fundamental appeal. Tell a story and then think about it—all in the same work.
And this is what I think Franzen fails to understand about the appeal of memoir. It’s strange that he wouldn’t: he creates characters for a living, and memoir is simply creating a believable character who also happens to be the narrator. Fundamentally, memoirs are fiction with a whiff of truth. Fundamentally, that is, they’re stories. The goal of a story is to speak to people truthfully, not to tell them the straight dope. I don’t care if James Frey pulled “A Million Little Pieces” out of thin air and then pretended it was true. I don’t feel violated, cheated, or dishonored when a writer elides over uncomfortable facts, or makes up entirely new ones, in the service of a story. A story that doesn’t lie is boring, a laundry list, the minutes of your meeting. Outside of journalism, when I read I want the reality to be tangible; I don’t care a bit about whether it’s verifiable.
Which is a long way of saying that “serious” literature, whether “based on a true story” or entirely fabricated, should probably be judged by a uniform standard, and we ought not worry so much about facts, when the matter at hand is truth.
Anyhow, go read this.