Thursday, July 19, 2007

How to talk about books you've never read

In ten years working book retail I dealt with many troubling, puzzling, or dimwitted patrons. Of course there were gazillions of the "it's a yellow book, about this tall, with the word 'the' in the title" sort, but they are a dime a dozen. There are more advanced degrees of troubling patrons, like the earnest young woman who brought her novel manuscript to the Info Desk and asked how long it would take us to 'print up' her book. When I explained that bookstores didn't solicit and print manuscripts on site she was dumbfounded and hurt. She'd no idea about editors, publishers, rejection notices--I shattered her glass unicorn worldview into bits. (With some glee, I might guiltily add.)

But the most troubling patron of all was the obviously wealthy 40-something who asked me for a single book that would allow him to discuss literature, philosophy, religion, art, cinema, and history like an intellectual. "I want just one book I can read that will make me sound like an expert on stuff, but I don't really want to read anything or have to think too much." I figure this guy made a mint selling swibbles or somewhat, because he was pure dullard, the kind of shallow dumbass who'd make $100 million and use it to start a dogfighting business.

That patron left the bookshop dis-satisfied. I teasingly tried to sell him Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook, assuring him the wisdom of all ages was contained therein. But his plight made me sad. He was tired of hanging out with smart people at parties and having not a clue what anyone was talking about, and wanted in on the game. But he didn't want actually to have to learn anything. I was, in fact doubly sad, because I have been at parties where people talked about things about which I knew nothing (for example: hermeneutics, cosmic dust, daguerrotype preservation techniques, disorders of the amygdala, fisting, Nicholas Sparks, pseudo-Dionysus) and wished similarly for a magic elixir that could render me conversant on the most esoteric subjects. But I've always been keen on learning, and reading, and seeking. The fact that this guy thought a single book could bring him up to speed was a sign of deepest naivete; the fact that he wanted only a superficial degree of knowledge--just enough to impress the cocktail party set with his erudition--upset me no end.

Knowledge is about personal enrichment, about forging an identity, about crafting a unique capacity to engage the world. It's not about impressing other Rotarians at the country club.

Now Pierre Bayard has written a book for that patron.

[link via 3 Quarks Daily]


John Vondracek said...

well, there is ONE bok that makes the reader an insufferable know-it-all in any and all subjects (usually dullards are drawn to it en-masse)

it's in just about every hotel room across the country.

plus, there's no shortage of rich, powerful people he can then hang with and talk about it

:) jv

geoff said...

The Complete Works of Charles Fort?

John Vondracek said...

not exaaaaaaaactly what I was thinking about, but good call on that anyway

Geoff's Mom said...

Stick with me at the next cocktain party and I'll cover all the Nicholas Sparks discussions!!!