[A post-preamble to A Republic of Books, portions of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site.]
This is my chance, then, to cast myself in the hero’s role. I’ve been a humble bookseller for all these years. (Allow me my hyperbole.) I don’t run into tall buildings to save women and children while other’s flee. (My knees have never been that good, but do the women need the saving anymore?) My eyes are not good enough to fly jet planes or hit a fast ball. I sell old books and a few that are new, and write what I cannot sell. For sixty-eight years I have done pretty much what suited me. And here, at last, is a chance to do what is arguably better if not best. The argument is not settled. That I have waited until I have so little left to lose may be some mitigation of your judgment of all this, perhaps. Or that the overwhelming risk of failure now makes any effort romantically futile (and planned that so). That I should have done more to prevent what has finally come to pass might cast me into the lower ranks of Dante’s hell, but at least I won’t be letting a good collapse of Western Civilization go waste. There is a story here. And if it transpires that there is no one left to read it, so be it. That is at least consistent with everything else I have ever done. (The whine you hear is not self pity, but the wind in the gears.) I sally forth. My armor is the truth. I have a worthy truck for my steed. My companion is—well, we’ll work that out.
A doctor told me recently that he doesn’t read novels. I have encountered this before, especially among individuals of above average intelligence.
“I’m too busy,” he said.
I said, “When did you trade being busy for being anything else?”
He looked confused. Consternated is the old word. I suppose he thought I was passing judgment of some kind, which is true. Doctors especially dislike to be judged. That is their prerogative, not yours. It took him a moment to realize there were other alternatives to the equation than to be lazy or unproductive.
“I’ve always been busy. I suppose it’s my nature.”
He said this while continuing to tap and probe.
I asked, “Have you ever read The Little Prince?”
“Is it a novel?”
“No. Not really, though it’s novel enough. But there’s a character in that who’s very busy with matters of consequence. And I imagine you think that what you are busy with are matters of consequence.”
“Sure. Sometimes, life and death.”
“Your own life and death?”
“No. Others. Even yours.”
“What about yours?”
“I take care of myself.”
“You work out?”
“Everyday. About an hour. And I run when I can.”
“But you don’t read.”
“I read medical texts. Extracts. There’s a lot to keep up with.”
“When did you come to believe that you were a machine?”
“I don’t understand.”
“A machine is a complex tool. What you’re giving me is an answer I could get from a computer, and done more efficiently by a computer. I thought what made a doctor unique from a machine was their ability to make judgments where the facts are insufficient. I thought that was why they call it the practice of medicine.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Novels can give you perspective on dry fact. They offer insight. They let you see things from other angles.”
Now, I was in this doctor’s office at the time. He had allotted me my fifteen minutes. This appointment did not include time for chatting about literature or the meaning of life.
“Well, maybe someday doctors will be replaced by machines. But for now, I have to figure out why your shoulder hurts.”
A familiar illustration of the body’s inner geography filled the wall in front of me.
“That chart is very neat and machine-like, and I’ll bet you passed a test on all those very same names for the ligaments and bones and muscles maybe thirty years ago, because that same chart was in my doctor’s office when I was a kid. It was fascinating to me then. But that’s not me.”
He was offended. “I know that. And I do have another patient waiting. What’s your point?”
“You still haven’t explained to me why my shoulder hurts. You told me that the torn ligament in my shoulder has nothing to do with the muscles that are causing me pain six inches away from it. I wonder how you know that?”
“They’re not directly connected to one another. You want a medical judgment. That’s it.”
I pointed at the names on the chart. “But the problem with the trapezius and capitis and all those other muscles began when that ligament was torn. And though my posture leaves much to be desired, the muscle knots up and becomes painful when I lift something with that arm, or extend that arm. And I am nearly always in pain because of it. And your telling me it’s not connected sounds like something I might find in a text book. But it doesn’t fit my circumstance, and it does not solve my problem. Don’t you think that’s important?”
“I think it covers the matter admirably.”
“Yamamoto would approve.”
“An admiral who only listened to what he wanted to hear.”
That was a bridge too far.
“I don’t have time for games. You can put your shirt on now and take this folder to the desk.”
“Sure. My time is your time.”
“Are you being rude?”
“You have no idea.”
The rules are that you should never pick a fight with your doctor, . . . or your landlord, or a policeman, or the IRS, or a meter maid, or a city inspector, or a customer, or just about anyone who can cause you more harm than good. That’s the kind of life most of us lead these days. I’ve tried not to live that way, but I’m not that much different than everyone else. As with life’s other circumstances, the pain in my shoulder usually reminds me that I’m doing something wrong.
There is a wonderful quote from a fabulous movie of long ago, often repeated but seldom fully appreciated: “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”
Perhaps it’s strange to you that I apply a quote from a movie to the death of the book, which is the greater subject here. Then perhaps you should look more closely at that movie. It was not technology that killed the book, nor the internet, or digital reproduction, or any of those contrivances that you’ve heard complaints about. They were only means. Mere tools. ’Twas beauty. The perfect nature of the book itself—that physical vade mecum of bound pages, whether pulp or rag or vellum, sewn or stapled or glued, covered in leather or cloth or not covered at all—that was the reason and cause for its destruction. Such an empiric beast could not be allowed to survive in a fungible world of etext, hypertext, subtext, pretext, semiotext, nontex—whatever. No matter the subject, poem, novel, history, or tract, the book itself was the existential threat.
“Look!” My old friend Gary once said, interrupting a regular rant of mine, long before I had wised up to the fact, “You don’t think they want evidence of their deeds lingering about, do you?”
“They? Who is ‘they’?”
“The intelligentsia, the self-ordained priests of the illuminati, the elite! They intend to survive, you know, and they don’t want evidence of their betrayal laying about on coffee tables. So long as the shelves are filled with crap, they’re fine. No one will look there. But their greatest fear is the book in the cupboard. The forgotten text. Some sort of palimpsest of their perfidy. . . . You like that?”
“The use of the ‘P’ words. I did that just for you because I know you love it so.”
“It’s fine. But tell me who ‘they’ are.”
“Who do you think?”
“Who? The President? I was talking about the Patriot Act. ”
“No. No. No. He’s a tool! Bush league. His very name is a sort of onomatopoeia. I’m talking about the ‘establishment.’ The ‘Dark State.’ ”
This was way back in 2003. We were killing the best of our youth again, this time in Iraq. A fine man, an honest editor and excellent writer, Michael Kelly, whom I had met in the shop on several occasions had just been killed there in his own attempt to see what was real and what was not. It had brought up a gorge of complaint at the current human folly.
But I said, “Another conspiracy theory! You’ve become paranoid!”
I should have seen what was coming for my friend Gary right then. He is shorter than I am but strongly built. When his hands fly into the air, it’s like an athlete flailing at the gods for his own failure.
“You are wrong! Try to see it! Please! This is not one of your word games. This is for your life and the lives of your children. The bad guys don’t need to conspire! They all think alike. Haven’t you noticed. It’s like the Ira Levin novel, Stepford Wives. No. No. Better yet. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers! Pod people. They don’t need instructions. They know, like a bird knows how to build a nest. It’s in their genes!”
“Maybe that’s just because they all wore Levi’s back in the 1960’s. Something in the dyes.”
“Please! Take this seriously!”
But that was hopeless for me at the time. Poor Gary. I was still too concerned with my own malarky to see it.
With writers already having sacrificed verity in favor of favor and acceptance, such a corporal art as the book, and the ready evidence it might reveal of their deceit, could not be allowed to co-exist beside the re-written virtual text of our time. Revisionist history has been the rage since old Woodrow Wilson started altering the meaning of events and the Constitution way back when he was just a professor at Princeton. With the very climate itself having been made political, the ‘author’ had become just another tool as well, and the need for the book—that hairy sublime of existential fact and proof of our foolishness, the paper trail of what we had known or thought we knew, that tramp tattoo attesting to our previous love and indulgence—was made inconvenient and thus doubtful. With the advent of the internet and the ascendancy of nescience and the commutable labyrinth of the web, the virtual had now become the ‘real’ and the book was at last defunct. The anonymous Wikipedia had redefined wickedness. All had been Googled. The Great Bezos had spoken.
Certainly the tag, ‘book’ will be carried on. And ‘pages.’ And ‘word.’ The ever prescient Orwell predicted all that too, as meanings are altered to suit the need of authority. But now we have arrived at that last moment. The great misbegotten beast that was the book lay dead upon the shadowed street in New York. And all of those things that the book once was, nasty and false and true and kind, were dead as well, along with that industry of editors and publishers, critics and agents and, not least, the mortal authors themselves who once believed in their own veracity and perspicacity. All gone! Deceased. As dead as the once wild beast of unfettered words that made them possible. A computer can now write as well as the graduate of a university writer’s workshop. Garbage in, garbage out. Compassion made to order. Empathy on demand. There’s a formula for that, don’t you know. Just keep it Strunk and White.
It is now all too clear. The death of the book was a suicide.
Art has now evolved beyond postmodern, to postmortem.
And note, the movie industry is departed as well—not coincidentally, using the same recipe. A King Kong cannot be imagined today, (I reference the 1933 masterpiece, not the modern abortions) only copied—and badly at that. Computer graphics can now simulate almost anything but real life—but then, that was once the subject of actual authors, not authoritarians.
The writing of these ninety-five theses, however pitiful, did not just begin with the recent indiscretions of the FBI. In one form or another, as a play, a vignette, our memoir, they were begun years ago. Certainly before my argument with Gary, when I had only an inkling of what was to come. I was mainly troubled then by the quality of the books. At the outset, we had mostly been a new bookshop but I was made to buy more and more used stock in order to keep good books on the shelf. And then my argument was begun anew when I realized the best of the publishers were finally gone and what was left were the international corporate monsters whose obeisance to the numbers on the bottom line made any semblance of publishing the best, out of the question. Alfred A. Knopf, or the ghost of its better half, was sold to Bertelsmann, and Holtzbrinck had bought Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The Germans had won the war after all and I thought this was significant. And it wasn’t just here. It was happening there as well.
And you know where there is.
Canongate in Edinburgh sold out to a rich young fellow with pretensions back in 1994. Who would publish the like of Alasdair Gray today? And there is no small bookseller on the banks of the Seine to publish a James Joyce in our time. Why bother when no one reads anyway. ‘They scan. They skate. The have no time to contemplate.’
And at least once more after that, I attempted my screed. That was when a former customer was leaving the shop one day, and told me, quite frankly, that he was only browsing so that he would know what to look for on his e-reader. I told him, out loud, that I hoped he enjoyed fucking himself, because that was the only pleasure he would get out of that. However, the small pleasure I got from the look in his eye that day was not sufficient payment for the misery he made me realize was already mine. Perhaps I should have given him credit for his honesty. Like Walter Raleigh tipping the executioner to take his best whack. No?
Yet, here I am again on the storied slopes of Mount Helicon, looking for a horse.
It’s easy to write about detectives and space rangers. I find it most difficult to write directly about myself. Without disguise, making the most of so little is a real chore. But, for shame, I will try to hide the sweat.
With the advent of computer-generated imagery, the most popular films are now little more than cartoons. With the decline and decay of education, our history and literature, and the language necessary to understand them, have devolved to idioms, memes and iconography. With the rise of authoritarian politics, the expression of free-thought has become hate speech and virtue signalling as replaced virtue.
I read years ago that the actor Steve McQueen, a favorite of my youth, refused a movie role because he would not cry on demand. I respected him the more.
It is in that spirit of not crying on demand then that I write this book.
You are here, at a rest stop. Beneath the finger smudged glass, an arrow marks the spot on the highway map.
‘All hope abandon, ye who enter.’
Dante said as much.
But, if you would permit, I would like to say a little more.