Saturday, March 11, 2017

Dull As Fuck

Playtime with the cats usually includes a YouTube video, the background soundtrack of choice one writer or another yammering. Julian Barnes, Michael Connelly, Toni Morrison, Shelby Foote, etc., have all accompanied the (mostly) daily task.   Of late, I've chipped away at a January 1997 special Booknotes 'About Books' broadcast involving Foote, Peggy Noonan, David Halberstam, and host Brian Lamb at the Library of Congress.  

The guests voiced concerns about the Internet.  Foote mentions this "thing" called 'surfing', and Noonan both presented the scholars concern for the loss of "mistakes" -- the digital hammer of the word processor obliterating the roadmaps that successive drafts provide -- and her experience in chat rooms, wrapped up by the statement "There's a lot of lonely people out there". 

A telling moment arrives when a caller thanks Halberstam for his out-of-print book The Powers That Be, and bemoans the haggard state of her copy.  Halberstam intimates Booknotes staff will get her address and they'll send her a replacement.  

January 1997 I still lived in Los Angeles.  Not only did I not have the Internet, the production offices I interned at had no Internet.  I still have no cellphone. Sort of.  Late this January I bought the barest bones phone possible. Last week I opened the box and looked at the phone and the instructions and then put it all back in the box and put the box back on the bookshelf where it'd been stored since purchase.

Before I interned in Hollywood I interned at KOMO in Seattle.  It was godawful simplistic data entry and scheduling tasks, the drudgery supplemented by my penchant for growing at least one monster pimple every two weeks.  For the duration I rented a room in a student-packed Montlake neighborhood house, and dwelled in the basement and slept on a foam mattress. I remember one Sunday watching all three Leone/Eastwood spaghetti westerns courtesy TBS, but chiefly I remember walking from Montlake through the heart of the University of Washington campus to the U District, and popping in to the used bookstores.

The worst thing is losing practical information and relying instead on genetic response.  At that time there were so many used bookstores in the U District memory presents a soup rather than distinguishable entities.  The store I hit up regularly was on University Avenue, but I don't remember the store name, mostly I just remember this one female employee who rocked blue jeans in a manner cementing my notion that all forms and shapes we find pleasing are not only dependent on mathematics, space filled, space displaced, curves and such, but that once perfection is encountered, the divine equation seared into grey matter, we enter a kind of Hell, a never-ceasing search to once more arrive in the company of that soul satisfying geometry, the stumble into our realm of an instance of the world of perfect forms.  In short, she had a great butt. Maybe the great butt. Poking around, surfing, courtesy of an archived Seattle P-I article, I think the store I'm thinking of was University Used & Rare Books.  

Now the Half Price Books in the University District, the last HPB in Seattle, is set for an April date with the executioner. 

HPB is fighting a losing battle.  Physical media is dead.  As each generation settles into the new normal of all media delivered through the one-device funnel, there is less to sell. Profits winnow as demand collapses. 

Further, they're battling themselves. Promoting a web presence detracts from the standard bricks-and-mortar model, and worse, Internet savvy in-store and phone customers quickly back away from offers to have other locations mail items.  Yes, the order can be placed right-there and right-then, but why pay $7.99 for a book that can be plucked for all of $0.01 on-line? There are people out there who will submit to an intermediary doing the slog of Internet commerce for them, but they are not legion.  They are outliers. Their sparse shekels cannot perform the Samsonesque task of supporting the pillars of employee benefits, let alone the twice-monthly paycheck. 

As a former employee I can tell all kinds of tales of blood-spilled, but mostly what sticks in light of the upcoming demise is the fact that on their breaks, my co-workers mimicked society at large.  On break, out came the phone.  That soothing hit of digital smack. Even worse the instances where a book would be out, but so was the phone, and then it was a drip and then drips and then a steady stream as the employee's phone interaction rendered the book and her words into at best an armrest. 

There is good in connectivity. Mercy For Animals and Toronto Pig Save have turned me from a half-assed vegetarian into a half-assed vegan (I'm still struggling to polish off 320 burp-less fish oil softgels). I'm writing and publishing without going to Kinko's. For wont of feeling productive I'm taking digital photos of my doodles and posting them. The woman who'd rendered her copy of The Powers That Be into a ragamuffin-state could now just hit up an online store and not have to depend on Booknotes staff and the grace of Halberstam for a replacement.  

It's arguable which will occur first.  We render ourselves extinct. An asteroid performs the feat.  A solar flare or WWIII renders the Internet/cloud obsolete. As Wilco points out, "Every generation thinks it's the end of the world." One twentysomething employee I worked with stated nonplussed that books were not dying, they were evolving into a new form. I thank her for her contribution to the discussion at the same time I choke down the bitter upchuck such Pollyanna-ish dipshittery ignites.  

A book is a book.  It has a spine. Pages. It gathers dust. It warps if it gets wet. Some books host unflattering smells. Some books are repositories for pressed flowers and in the odd instance used prophylactics. They don't depend on WiFi. Or a charged battery. Or a Prime membership. They are a closed state. I have too many of them. I have more than I will get through before I die. They are likely future artifacts, arcane objects harkening back to a time pre-virtual reality, pre-headset, pre-tactile simulator when we could enter whole other worlds with nothing but the power of eyes and brain and attention span. And yes, compared to all the noise and motion a phone provides access to they are dull as fuck.  But for my tribe, book people, lonely longer but serendipitous to the newer larger tribe, and heading faster and faster towards extinction, the book as is will always be the right kind of dull as fuck.  





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