Book Shoppers Anonymous: “Time Enough at Last”

Something has been happening in my apartment. I have a new roommate. Boy, do I get rankled all the time for want of some alone time. It’s not just the apartment, though. It’s this entire city, it’s the world. He’s just stepped out, and now I have some time to listen to my own thoughts, to read, to write, to walk around the apartment naked. Most of all, though, I tell myself that if only I had more time to myself in the apartment, that I’d read more.

For those of you who know me, I play a lot of video games, and I may have even mentioned that up until a month or so ago, I hadn’t been reading much. So for those of you reading this, you might know, too, that by me saying that I’d read more if only I had more space and more time, is really just me rationalizing my own selfishness.

If we travel back in time to this summer when I wrote my post about detachment, Buddhism, and book-buying, I used that oh-so-iconic figure of Henry Bemis, the eccentric banker from a famous episode of The Twilight ZoneI’ve been watching the show recently from the very first episode, and my god, that show is dark, intense, and ahead of its (yes, here’s that word again) time.

Henry Bemis, as played by Burgess Meredith

In the episode “Time Enough at Last”, our tragic bespectacled hero Henry Bemis is a timid and eccentric bank teller and husband. He’s nearsighted and loves to read books. All Henry wants to do is read books and talk about books, but the real world represented by his wife, his job, and his boss, keep intruding.

The president of the bank tells him, “You, Mr Bemis, are a reader. A reader of books, magazines, periodicals, newspapers. I see you constantly going down to the vault during your lunch hour. You will henceforth devote your time to your job and forget reading, or you’ll find yourself outdoors reading on a park bench from morning until night from want of a job.” Bemis interrupts the president, to which the president replies, “Make it quick and get back to your cage.” Imagine this president in the age of the internet. Talk about the distraction and productivity killer to end all.

His wife is no better, talking down to him and his silly books, a lot like how people used to pester me about video games. She even takes a pencil to his book and vandalizes them. Henry Bemis is crushed. Even after Bemis tells the president how his wife will never let him read, driving him to desperate acts of reading the labels on the ketchup bottle, the president commends Bemis’s wife as a sound woman.

They all just seem like a bunch of meanies, at least to my roommate and his girlfriend.

So much of the episode sets up the viewer to sympathize with Bemis. This shy, timid, gentle man is just being bullied and misunderstood by the world. It’s certainly difficult for an informed and literate New Yorker like myself to understand how so much of Bemis’s world can be against books. It’s even more surprising just how anti-intellectual the world can be even now in the heyday of the internet and quick-and-easy access to knowledge. There’s Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia (which actually gave presented the idea of anti-intellectualism in this episode).

In my liberal time and place, education and being informed are often so highly regarded. I take it for granted just how much we value books. And that’s exactly what the story is trying to teach us, right? The world is just a bunch of dummies, and Bemis is the true hero because he reads books and is educated and understands the human condition and blah blah blah.

Then the H-bomb goes off as Bemis reads from the protected shell of a bank vault. He’s suddenly left alone. His pocket watch shatters. There’s no one to bother him. He has plenty of food, well, crackers, but there’s no one to bother him. No one. Soon enough he goes mad, finds a gun with which he’s going to kill himself. “Surely I’ll be forgiven…”

Then he sees the sign for the Public Library and approaches his version of Heaven.

“Collected Works of Dickens. Collected Works of Bernard Shaw. Poems by Browning, Shelley, Keats! Great Dramas of the World! Books, books, books. All the books I’ll need, all the books I’ll ever want!” No wonder this video was first shown to me in a high school English class.

Still, if this episode is a champion of intellectualism, then why is Bemis “punished” at the end of the episode? He embraces a huge clock when he expounds on having all “the time I’ll need. All the time I’ll want. There’s time enough at last.” And yes, secretly there’s a part of me that wishes for an apocalypse where I’m secretly vaulted up in the cellar of The Strand book store with enough crackers and salami to keep me alive.

And even though I’d be able to read all the Dostoevsky I wanted, and enough time to read The Fermata over and over again, surely I wouldn’t be able to make love to any of these books. I couldn’t discuss them with anyone, and let’s not forget that Bemis wants to discuss books with others. It’s not that he’s a recluse. He wants to

But with no markers of time, no people, no eyeglasses, no life to which our books and knowledge can refer to, it’s all dead anyways. As admirable as Bemis’s intellectualism is, he ultimately falls prey to his own desires. There’s a limit to it all.

What would Werner Herzog have to say about this, though? When he said that you can’t be a filmmaker if you don’t read, bemoaning a culture that only reads magazines and blog posts (like this one), did he see the blind spots of his own obsession with the written word? And what do we make then of this limitation of knowledge when David Simon, the creator of The Wire, one of the most critically acclaimed shows touted for being authentic and unflinching, tells us that we still need to be reading books because they do something television doesn’t? Or even when Buddhists must practice detachment from books and knowledge?

Was Bemis punished? Was it the world that was at fault? Or is this just an example of the amorality of our universe and the tragic nature of humanity? Even books can’t save us in the end, not even an e-book. But if books can’t save us, neither will all of our stories. When the big one hits, no matter how we view these stories as little time capsules, capturing history and slices of life, they’ll never be a substitute for living itself, even if that reality is a harsh wife and a demanding boss.

Is it really that simple, though? That cut-and-dry? Why shouldn’t we get our own little slice of paradise? As we’ve all most of us have learned, life isn’t fair. And as The Twilight Zone, books, and the events of the world have taught us all (oh-so-recently) we often live in a confusing, alien, and amoral world that all the books and knowledge could possibly fix or alleviate.

But I’d like to think it might help…

Book-Shoppers Anonymous

A few years ago, I was complaining to a friend about the trials of moving, a friend who we’ll call Mr. Fifths. This man was rather austere with his domestic possessions despite having a reputation for being somewhat decadent when it came to women, drinks, and drugs. He asked me if I had a lot of stuff. I mentioned that my books were really the toughest and heaviest things to move around. He asked me how many I had.

A lot, I said.

“Have you read them all?” he asked.

Of course. Of course I’ve read, well, most of them.

When I got home, I surveyed my room. At the time, I had a queen-sized bed, a futon-couch that folded out, a cheap twenty-dollar clothing rack, a desk made of pressed wood and colored caramel brown, the books, and the bookshelves, which numbered in three. I owned two copies of Shakespeare’s complete works, one brown and faux leather-bound Illustrated Globe edition, the other a Riverside anthology; four D.H. Lawrence novels, The Rainbow, Women in Love, Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley’s Lovers, as well as his complete short stories, along with his complete poetry; The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe; an ornate hardcover edition of nine plays by Eugene O’Neill published in 1932; anywhere from ten to twelve issues of The McSweeney’s Quarterly; Aldous Huxley’s Island and a collection of his essay, which I’d purchased from a second-hand seller on the street either on the Upper West Side or the West Village; Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis which another friend of mind had let me pilfer from his living room; The Lord of the Rings and a copy of The Hobbit purchased on impulse at the now bankrupt and defunct Borders booksellers at Columbus Circle; about twenty-seven issues of The Believer magazine; The Only Astrology Book You’ll Ever Need and Sextrology; Remember Be Here Now; The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey; and on and on and on…

I don’t have an exact count, but along with all the books I had to purchase for school (mostly used through online booksellers), I probably had  close to one hundred and twenty-five books. As I surveyed them all during the packing, I began to notice something peculiar. Surely, I’d read eighty-percent of the books. Yeah, that sounds about right. Eighty-percent. Huh. More books into boxes. Okay, maybe not eighty-percent. Surely, seventy-percent. Yes, seventy-percent. Then I was packing away more books into boxes. Well, I haven’t really touched the short stories by D.H. Lawrence and I definitely haven’t read the Democracy in America or the People’s History of the United States of America. I don’t even remember where I got that copy of

So I’d read every issue of the magazines from cover to cover, 80 pages of almost pure verbiage full of essays and interviews. I’d read the entirety of The Lord of the Rings and The Brothers Karamazov and The Mists of Avalon, not only once but twice! But as I really began to pay attention, the realization that I’d only read maybe half of these books was beginning to dawn on me. It wasn’t a frightening revelation, but it was humbling.

Over the years, books were passed on, but even there were even more books coming in. I know the signs of an addiction. There’s a sort of whirl and dizziness that comes into one’s vision. Feelings of elation and seeming clear-headedness while in the presence of the coveted item. My mom is a shoe-addict, but ladies and gentleman of the literary world, I am a book whore.

Now, some of the readers out there might be thinking to themselves, What’s wrong with loving books? Shouldn’t we value a well-read person? Aren’t books one of the world’s great inventions and technologies? There are worse things than being a book whore. Of course, I’ve often felt the same way despite some nagging thoughts about the compulsiveness of book-buying. Our American, liberal, culture takes pride in being well-read as it’s a sign of one’s sophistication. After all, it puts one above the person who sits on their laptop or sits in front of the television all day. John Waters says, “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” At a panel discussion with Werner Herzog, he told us in what was almost a battle-cry that he always tells his film students to “Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! …and read books! You’ll never be a good filmmaker if you don’t read.” So, of course it’s good to be a reader, even a voracious reader. This is the belief I’ve held for many years and one that I held until last week, that is, until I read this post.

It’s Consumption Awareness month at the Interdependence Project, a group and community of urban-dwellers dedicated to Buddhism. As you’ve probably just read, this last week was about buying less books. The post recounts a retreat where students were not allowed to read. That’s right, students weren’t allowed to read because they didn’t want the students comparing their own spiritual journeys with other’s, which might make one’s personal journey seem meager in comparison to the one’s read. After all, don’t stories and anecdotes in books always seems more dramatic and larger-than-life than the humdrum of the reader’s? (I always think the authors or the characters in books are always having more sex than I am or will ever have). Beyond this, though, there’s an account of the book-buyer’s dilemma.

The contributor of the post, Sharon Salzberg, talks about how she makes a deal with herself about just buying one book even though she’s promised herself not to buy any until she has given some away. To that, Henry Ward Beecher says, “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?” Let’s face it, there’s a tumblr blog called Book Porn if one needs further example of just how insidious book-lust can be. Books are incredibly sensual. They have that musky (alright, some will argue musty) smell. I love the way a book feels, the weight of it when you’re holding it up or if it’s hanging at your side, the texture of the cover. We often talk about book covers and their design, whether they’re aesthetically pleasing or not, suggesting that a pile of 8 1/2 x 11 paper with the text of East of Eden on it wouldn’t be as pleasing an experience as having the Centennial edition printed on acid-free paper. Alongside the temptation and the more illicit connections we might have with books, though, I love the feelings of solitude and relaxation and curiosity that set in and are aroused when one is surrounded by books, especially in the bookstore. Yes, I’m alone, but the world and its history, its ideas, thoughts, stories, and secrets are all at my fingertips. Whenever my mom set me loose in the mall, I always went to the bookstores. It’s a sacred space.

Still, beyond all the good stuff, how easily one can slip into narcissism, arrogance, and downright compulsive consumption. On the subway or street, how many times have I turned the cover of my book towards someone who I found attractive? I’m like a flasher. How many times has my natural speech turned towards the bookish, trying to impress? How many times have I gone to the bookstore buying a book that I never intend to read. And then there’s this guy!

For all the knowledge we might obtain and no matter how large our libraries become, it’s all rubbish. On the one hand, Amos Oz says “…human beings come and go, while books remain forever,” but on the other hand, E.M. Forster says, “It is a mistake to think that books have come to stay. The human race did without them for thousands of years and may decide to do without them again.” Rousseau says, “I hate books; they only teach us to talk about things we know nothing about.” Isn’t that why we read? Is all this knowledge just vapor? Well, he might have a point. I can’t tell you how many discussions about books turn into “my favorite part” discussions, not deep and heated debate. While I don’t agree with Rousseau’s statement wholeheartedly, the quote does make one think; whereas for Charles Lamb, there is no thought induced by a book because “Books think for me.”

So where and when does knowledge become power? Where are the limits of that power? I think (and hope) that we are part of a time where we are acknowledging the limits of the rational mind. Will we one day at the height of our knowledge and wisdom not only take breaks from our television, internet, and iPhones, but from the seemingly harmless pastime of reading and book-buying? When does a healthy love for books become a dangerous obsession? Erasmus says, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” Not such sound advice. And let’s acknowledge the plain fact that books are consumable goods. They are things we own, and as Tyler Durden says…

Fine, Tyler. I will do what I like because the truth is I will never abandon my books. And hell, even a healthy dose of lascivious thought and action towards one’s spouse after years of marital bliss and torture (is this possible?) can be good for one’s sex life. So let’s say, too, that I’ll never wholly abandon my lust for books. And literature. And poetry. And theater. If that desire was diminished even a little bit, this blog would have no reason for existing. At the same time, just to add a little tonic to the liquor, I’ll try to remember this final quote from Robert Louis Stevenson: “Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.”

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Disclaimer: Many (read: all) the quotes I’ve pulled were not from the bevy of books I’ve read. No sirree. As I’ve already stated, the Werner Herzog quote comes from a panel discussion I attended. The John Waters quote came from the internetz. And while I’ve read a good deal of books in my life time (he said without even the slightest hint of humility), all of the literary quotes used in this essay were pulled from the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Quotations, edited by Peter Kemp.

Book Review: The Fermata by Nicholson Baker (1994)

Only a book this original could contain a passage like this: “Nineteenth-century novels were all-important to [Rhody]. It wasn’t a question of her liking them; they were a neurological necessity, like sleep. One Mrs. Humphry Ward, or a Reade, or a Trollope per week supplied her with some kind of critical co-enzyme, she said, that allowerd her to organize social sense experience. It was nice if the novel was good, but even a very mediocre one would do; without a daily shot of Victorian fiction she couldn’t quite remember how to talk to people and to understand what they said. I miss her.”

…and a sentence like this: “I need to pop my nuts on a pair of small sexy tits right this second!!”

But if I wanted to give any potential reader the best representational sentence for the book, it would be this one.

“She was bathing with her rubber dildo –oh poetry!”

Indeed, this book is pure, filthy, sensitive, sensible, insightful, lewd, and downright hot, poetry.

The Fermata is the fictitious autobiography of Arnie Steiner, a self-proclaimed career temp, who transcribes tapes and has the special ability to freeze time, or as he calls it, enter the Fold. What does he do with this special ability? Well, he undresses women, of course. Not only that, but he straps vibrating butterfly sex toys onto unknowing women. He gathers secret information from women he’s interested in (and he’s interested in almost all of them. “…it is much more surprising to me when a woman fails to attract me than when she does attract me.”)

After reading the premise of the book, it will be easy to label this guy and his story as a creep and creepy, of no redeemable value. This book must be smut, right? Well, no. The book is lewd and too, too funny. (And hot. Did I mention, hot?) What really makes the book a work of art, and yes poetry, is that Arnie is quite a sensitive individual. He doesn’t use his powers to steal. He’d feel far too guilty to do that. When he postulates a power like he has to others, he’s horrified to know that a man would just rape women. He does nothing to (truly) harm these women, and he often walks that fine balance between titillation and transgression, which is one of the most fascinating sources of conflict in the book. He admits that all he wants to do is give these women a little bit of novelty and pleasure in their basically humdrum lives, but also readily admits that many of the things he does are morally reprehensible.

Along the way, we’re given some serious thought on the implications and dangers of time-travel, insight into human desire, interaction, and intimacy, as well as romance. So much of our everyday world and life is eroticised, and thus elevated, in a book with such deftly produced prose. There’s nothing obvious or cliched in this book. Those who come (pun-intended) for the little spank material won’t be disappointed, but they’ll find a lot more under that surface. Those coming for artful and serious literature will find plenty of intellectualism here with plenty of humor, fun, and sexiness, as well.

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