The bookstore is a dying species. The ones that remain wait quietly for the digital axe to fall. I managed to come across a bookstore this weekend -- a rare find that requires three things to be true at the same time:
I am looking up from my phone.
I walk by the store.
I have time to kill.
I stepped inside the store and, mentally tired and drenched in my own sweat, immediately gravitated towards the curated shelves. What did the staff recommend? Whose publicist was earning their keep? (i.e. What are the bestsellers?)
Wait. Stop. Poets still publish...books?!
I gave up on Option B and Designing [my] Life and slid into the poetry section. One title yanked me by he neck and pulled me in, professing to show me "There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé"
-- something everyone knows but few dare say.
The author, Morgan Parker
, not only said it, but did so in poetry and published it. After releasing my neck, Morgan Parker cracked open my skull, rummaged inside and found the deepest, darkest, angriest, saddest, most beautiful and most powerful thoughts I've ever thunk about being black, woman and breathing in America.
Amazon would never have recommended this book to me. No algorithm would have caught it and floated it to my home screen alerts. No app would have alerted me and said, "Hey! I found this book thing by someone who does words and I think it will help you feel less alone and will make that battle for dignity and understanding a bit easier to wage."
Where an app failed, a bookstore prevailed.
Now, let's go back to the bestsellers' table for a minute. If you want to get a sense for what our collective sensibility is (or how it is being advertised), take a gander at the social science bestsellers. We are one morose, lonely, angsty bunch these days.
The Crisis of The Middle-Class Constitution is upon us! So, Behave, while learning The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uck. Once you've done that, we must get to work on the Machine, Platform, Crowd and Harnessing our Digital Future. Why? because No is Not Enough. Oh, and before you rush off, here's Astrophysics for People In A Hurry.
Okay, stringing them all together is a bit much. But a frenetic, fearful tone is ascendant. It has been for a while, but it was shocking to see it splayed out for sale front and center in a bookstore.
Almost every cover screamed, "Your cities are killing you! Your food is killing you! Your devices are killing you! Slow down so you can be more creative to make more stuff to make more money to move faster and break more things! Conform and think differently or else your life will be destroyed by massive forces you don't understand and never will ... unless you buy this book."
I felt tired just looking at the assemblage of not-so-subtle warnings that these are dark days and my ignorance of what rested inside each book might lead to my downfall. We are clearly afraid and at a turning point, but we have always been that and there.
Since I knew how to fear it, I have feared losing my job. (I've lost it -- twice.) I have feared never getting married and starting a family. (Given my age, race, gender, level of education and the sociopolitical forces at play in my home country, that's a distinct possibility.) I have feared being homeless (it can happen to anyone at any time). I have feared not living a life of meaning -- one that places my name in the history books alongside ... well ... Beyoncé. Having never starved a day in my life, I fear going hungry.
I have turned to books, movies and others' ideas and discoveries to assuage those fears. In the end, though, nothing can put them permanently to rest. Knowledge cuts both ways, it calms some fears while stoking others. No one book or collection of books holds the elixir able to permanently ward off all of these existential fears.
That power rests solely with me. So, I will keep a few f*cks to give away at times and places of my choosing. I will cultivate a loose set of options labeled with various letters, numbers and emoji. I will behave sometimes and misbehave other times, because chocolate cake with caramel ice cream and dancing to Daft Punk in your underwear are amazing ways to pass the time. I will do my best to contribute things of meaning and worth to society, respecting the Middle-Class Constitution to the best of my ability, but recognizing that a better deal is needed. I will learn what I can using my machines, enjoy my little platforms where I can build them and respect the power of the crowd like I would a hurricane. I'll stop rushing and take a little time to learn what this astrophysics thing is all about.
I'll also do one more thing: I'll go to bookstores and slide into the aisles like a jungle cat hunting for the many authors who fearlessly offer ideas, inspiration, poetry and prose more beautiful than Beyoncé.