When I was selling books on the floor of a branch of Olsson’s Books, an independent bookstore in Baltimore, MD 30 years ago, Robert Pirsig’s Lila: An Inquiry into Morals arrived in one of our regular shipments from the distributors. Lila was the sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992.
Anyway, the promotion pack from the publisher included dozens of lapel badges reading “Who were you when you first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?”. This was a fiercely independent bookstore – Guy, the manager, refused to stock Dean Koontz (and many other authors), and the manager of the CD section, Elliot, was known to berate customers for their music choices.
It was a great place to work, partly because of the friendships; because you could speak your mind to customers (I once gave Caspar Weinberger, previously US Secretary of Defence, some snark in the checkout line, and Guy didn’t mind at all); and because of the fabulous Ouzo burgers and rice pudding I could get next door.
If you skim through some of the comments on this blog post announcing the shuttering of the Olsson’s chain (at the time, because the large chains swallowed our business, just as they have in turn been swallowed by Amazon), you’ll see what the place meant to both staff and customers.
And, I’m pretty sure that the comment from an “Unreliable narrator” (#286) was written by Wayne, because I recognise his voice. He and I bought rare graphic novels and other treasures around the corner from Olsson’s. I still have some of the graphic novels, in Mylar sleeves, like the 4 parts of Matheson’s I am Legend, and also some signed Ned Dameron lithographs from the original hardcover edition of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower III.
When taking the subway to work together, Wayne and I practised our balance (for martial arts), by standing in the carriage without using the handholds. He was Korean, and he made me taste some strange food.
But, it was mostly a great place to work because of all the reading I could do with the staff discount, and because of all the conversations we could have about all the reading we were doing with people who were doing as much of it as each other.
Last night, I told a friend that I’m a little hopeful that an enforced period of lockdown, in which Covid-19 feels like it attracts nearly all the media attention, and social media consists almost exclusively of people either being bewildered, being overconfident in a pet theory, or being nastier than ever because of how the rest of us idiots are buying into the lockdown arguments, might just result in some of us (me, in particular) going back to that life.
My thinking is: when you’re living a “normal” life, it’s fairly easy to think you’re just spending a few harmless hours reading about some scandal or other, or trying to follow some Twitter spat where the protagonists themselves seem to have forgotten how it started, and also, forgotten that it’s not really necessary to be obnoxious to strangers on the Internet.
It’s easy because you’re still going out in the World, playing squash (sigh!), having conversations at dinners, talking to colleagues about the affairs of the day, and so forth. So you don’t need to notice, or care, about how empty the ordinary online landscape is.
Now that it’s all we have, the illusion that it’s worthwhile to read most of the things we read online is quite a lot more difficult to sustain. Now that we feel we need distraction, most of what some of us had thought of as actually distracting is quickly running out of any power it once had to distract, because the volume of it makes its emptiness all the more apparent.
And then, the same night that I messaged the friend mentioned above, The Doctor (my lockdown companion, along with Mogwai) said something quite similar, and my pet theory reached Tim Noakes-levels of scientific certainty.
This morning, I read this Adam Shatz piece in the London Review of Books, which echoes – albeit more eloquently – some of the thoughts above. And, it’s important to note that I might be being unduly pessimistic, in that people do seem to be losing patience with some forms of sensationalism, as discussed in this New York Times piece on how “celebrity culture is burning”.
We don’t – can’t – know what the World will look like post Covid-19, or at least, post this first wave of it, seeing as Covid-19 isn’t exactly going away. On the economy, Adam Tooze has written a typically instructive piece, and I’d certainly recommend reading the Shatz piece linked above for perspective on politics and culture.
But, what I’m really saying is: you don’t need an excuse right now to slow down, and do some serious reading, and thinking. You never needed an excuse, of course, but perhaps you have more time now. I know some people have no time, or even less than before, but I imagine they are not my typical readership.
And, support those who make that reading and thinking possible if you can. Support the media that employ the writers who make you think, or who make you feel, not just those who make you want to go out and tell people on social media that they are wrong.
The World has always been complicated, and now it’s going to be even more so, for a time at least, as we figure out what happens next. Perhaps we’ll all revert to “normal”, sure. But maybe not, and maybe we don’t want to.
The task of navigating the course into that future is going to affect all of us, and some of us will also affect it. And, we’re better able to do so if we’re informed by more than just the everyday noise.
Turn it off. If you can, and, as much as you can.
P.S.: Since posting this, @theowinter reminded me of this complementary piece by Julio Vincent Gambuto on Medium, about the pandemic being our chance to define a “new version of normal”.