Wherein my education continues.

[another trifle from my alms-basket of words, A Republic of Books, the novel in progress to be found elsewhere on this ethereal site]

The door opens abruptly, only seconds after I’ve unlocked it. The customer is in a hurry and makes that clear with several wagging gestures and a quick huff of breath. She is young, in her twenties, and has the sort of blue eyes you see on con-artists and movie actors—hard, as if outlined in black. Maybe its the mascara. The muscles of her cheeks have the stiffened took of pulled taffy. Not pleasant. Her nose extends between her cheeks like the foot of a clam.

She speaks before the abused mechanism has closed the door again, “I’m looking for something to read while I’m on vacation.”

My own few tomes are displayed now by the cash register, just below the lip of the counter and readily at hand. They are generally ignored nonetheless.

“Would you like to read a great new novel by a local author? Hot off the press! Terrific story. Not at all like anything else.”

I do not promote them more than that. Not much. The last thing I would want is for someone to buy one and be disappointed. Better to cling to the illusion that if they did read just one, they would love it and become a lifelong friend than to fail at that singular joust of minds. These are the ploys of the aging writer, weary of rejection. But not me!

She shakes her head, “I want something light. What’s that new one I heard about—the one about the politician who’s supposed to be a child molester?”

I understand it is no revelation at all that a novel is a condensation of life, or that this particular art form was just that for a very long time—at least until our actual lives were existentially reduced to a series of reflexes, mere automatic impulses, as biological extensions of electronic media whilst on the tether of Wi-Fi, to be lived vicariously through some one of the most recent manifestations of an MP3 player, iPad, or smart phone. But I had another thought or two, by further extension.

“We have the latest Swedish cold-cereal killer thriller in, but I prefer hot oatmeal myself.”

She didn’t seem to hear.

This occurred to me awhile back when I was first considering the publishing of my own next novel as an e-book. Having given up on the prospect of finding an agent for my curmudgeonly efforts, which are always ‘too long,’ or ‘uncomfortable,’ with characters that are ‘unsympathetic,’ and humor that is ‘off putting,’ and thus recognizing the reality that if it was to be published at all, it would have to be done by myself, I was made to ponder what medium I might use for my message—given that the immortal words of Mr. McLuhan are still with us. The cheapest means were clearly the virtual pages of an e-book. But there was obvious irony in that, in bowing to the very death of the corporal book that I had long fought for, though it might actually accomplish what else I wanted—what any author would wish—a small measure of personal immortality: to wit, to be read.

She says, “Do you have any Stephen King?”

In any case, given the rate of attrition with electronic devices as they age faster than hamsters and the quick surpassing of software made to be as babelously obsolete as all the ancient languages within a decade or less, an e-book might give me at least a couple of years of accessibility. This status, of course, would hardly be akin to those frequent rediscoveries of once published authors I have myself uncovered in attics and basements; the ones I’d never heard of before the moment of extracting some faded volume from a dusty bin—those being better by far from the first paragraph, scanned on the spot in that diminished garret light, than the average hack work currently promoted full-page in The New York Times Book Review or Publisher’s Weekly (journals that support their efforts by selling advertising space, and though I don’t fault them for that, I do hold them to task for the editorial matter squeezed between the ads that serves both mammon and balderdash).

“We have one by Florence King.”

“Is that his wife? I don’t like her.”

No. I turned to my truer enemy for salvation. The mighty Amazon. They had now made a publishing device called CreateSpace which allows the lowly author to present his own work and shelve it in that super-colossal bookmart in the sky (that being well above the attics I am so fond of), where it might be found by the diligent aeronaut or the severely lost balloonist or cosmonaut, and ordered—print-on-demand. Thus, actual physical copies of the benighted work in question (lacking all the grace of proper editing and design), can be had in hand in paperback for a reasonable price. How nice!

Despairing, I pulled the Florence King from the shelf and tried to hand it to her. “I don’t think they’re related.”

The hard blue eyes scanned the cover without taking it.

“She’s Southern. I don’t like Southern writers.”

I despaired.

‘Print on demand!’ What need is there of the bookshop, when the buttons on keyboard will have it to you with 48 hours if you choose the express-mail option. You can watch TV until then. And better that than the Augean drawer; the silent death of neglect (an awful fate!), and then the dustbin when at last they clear out the accumulated detritus of my life at the end. Then again, ’They’ may be thankful for that clearing out, at least.

Is it the fear of death then, that drives us? Just that? Then Stephen King must have it right, by God!

I relented and pulled the most recent doorstop by Mr. King off the shelf.

She says on sight, “I think I read that.”

But in that brief instant I had already calculated the opened space that could be used to hold two better books in its place.

She took it from my hand and studied the flap-fold.

Worse still is the thin broth of contemporary lives lived in fear of everything: afraid of germs and cholesterol, snakes and CO2, clowns and ghosts; afraid of being alone, and of commitment; afraid of guns (even while thrilling to the pretend vengeance of a Matt Damon, Liam Neeson or Daniel Craig shooting anything that moves); afraid of being too fat, or too thin; afraid of both failure and success; afraid of commitment and of disappointment; afraid of offending Muslims (but not Christians), or women (but never men!), or blacks (not whites), or gays (but not the unhappy). By necessity, such a fallow and hesitant existence is lived in hatred of anyone who dares make something more of themselves than the banal—just for having made the insignificance of their own lives so obvious. I think it is jealousy that feeds their self-contempt. But such comparison is unfair, or so I am told.

The blue-eyed scallop! That’s what I was reminded of by her face! Well, not exactly. It was the terminology. The name itself. Scallop is such a good and underutilized word.

She says, “I’ll buy it anyway.”

The relative safety of modern life for several generations has meant a large increase in the number of these types who exist from moment to moment without true purpose, not having been confronted with the outright existential needs to feed and cloth themselves, or unable to fight for anything other than a place in the queue. And they vote their fears. Just one more deficiency of democracy in our modern era. Having skipped the actual text of the last century for the headlines alone, they fear big business but not big government. Yet, withal, from the loins of any of them might arise a better issue. We are all one species, after all, and of the same genetic stuff; the next hero might even yet come from the womb of the lowest form of bureaucrat!

Perhaps not in this case. I envision the crusty little mollusks that might drop from between her pants-suited legs like turtle eggs. Horrors! An actually sexist thought!

I step up behind the register. “That’s six dollars.”

She says, “Why so cheap?”

She studies it again.

I say, “It’s used.”

The scallop-blue eyes fix on me. ”What about the tax?”

“We include it in the price.”

The blue eyes widen, and brighten as they catch the light. “You really shouldn’t. People ought to know what they’re paying for. There shouldn’t be a tax on books in the first place.”

Once again, I am slapped up-side the head. She may not be pretty, but she might easily be able to teach me a thing or two.

“You’re right. It’s just another mistake I started making so long ago I’ve lost track of the purpose in it. I hate bookkeeping and small change. It was always easier to calculate the tax all at once on sales at the end of the month. But you’re right. People ought to know.”

She smiled. Like many people, she is prettier when she smiles.

This one exception aside then, here I am, publishing my own novels as electronic data—i.e., not real. False typography set upon a phony topography of electronic pages, to be conjured into corporeal form at the push of a button (and a two-week wait for shipping and handling if you’re not in a hurry). Where’s the beef then? I am no test pilot. Nor a soldier. Merely an observer (and an admittedly faultful one at that).

My gripe as I grasp at the potential half-life of the e-book and its progeny of print-on-demand is not only that, along with the tragic loss of craft in paper making and typography and binding and all the rest of that now buried art of bookmaking, it represents a small aesthetical fraction of its ancestors and also, with the collapse of publishers who once showed their mettle in risking good cash on what they adjudged to be the finest words they could find (unlike the State funded verbal masturbations issued at most colleges and universities that toe the politically correct line, or the wholly unfunded maunderings such as this to be found almost anywhere clogging the internet), that with their loss comes the end of any means of viable distribution, which is, of course, the death of the bricks-and-mortar bookshop as a purveyor of what some curmudgeon such as myself might judge to be the better of those titles offered (thus achieving a good Darwinian epitome of the best we have). What I publish myself is merely a cake to be eat (as in et) alone, or by a few friends, or lacking that, to be left out in the rain. Sadly, what seed is actually spread in our time is only that of the fast promoter and not that of the slow hand.

Yet perhaps that too, by its own devious means, is another aspect and function of the processes of Darwin’s natural selection. Thus, in my far less dramatic way, I am properly destined for the cold crevasse as well.

But to be reduced to fertilizer for electronic worms offers no consolation. Cold comfort farming at its best.

Scalloped indeed!