I was so confused.
Admittedly I lead a relatively cloistered life, but this was like a tidal wave washing across the Himalayas. The transformation had been gradual, subtle, years in the making. But the results, when noticed altogether, were devastating.
One writer’s group I attend meets twice a month in the only surviving local chain bookstore. The store had obviously been doing what it must all along to survive. The realization of what this entailed was like a rollercoaster ride through a cranial CT Scan of what currently passes for literacy—kind of like tempering the onrush of an LSD trip with arsenic. I suppose now that newspapers are becoming largely redundant thanks to the internet, and many major magazines are floundering as well, publishing houses have rushed to fill the perceived void with books that dwell upon immediacy. Almost everything I saw was pop culture packaged in neat myopic bite-sized wedges.
Gone were modern classics—I couldn’t even find Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. In their place were steamy “romance” novels of every degree of hormonal fantasy; idiot space opera passing for science fiction, including shelves upon shelves of film and television spin-offs; mock horror featuring vampires and zombies out the wazoo without any semblance of the social conscience that the genre demands; young adult books aimed at homogenizing everything early, especially schlock horror; books mimicking other books mimicking yet other books every one of them with the lasting value of a candy bar wrapper.
For a moment I wasn’t certain I was in a real book store at all, but some sadistic mockery of a book store, possibly as part of a hidden camera television show. I looked around. All of the hidden cameras were still cleverly disguised as beach balls dangling like extended udders from the ceiling, meant only to catch shirking disgruntled employees or to discourage customer five finger discounting. This freak show was for real and no one else was batting an eye.
Next I came across a book that proclaimed “Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein.” Hey pinhead, that was Mary Shelley’s work, not yours. Apart from plagiarizing her title, what kind of a preening narcissist puts his name first? (I’m sure he’s laughing all the way to the bank.) I looked about for a complimentary barf bag, but alas, there was no such amenity.
With mountains of marshmallow fluff passing for fiction was it any wonder that non-fiction was making such a stunning comeback? Or was it? The titles sounded like non-fiction, but the exact same fluff was crammed between the covers as if there was a gargantuan need for folks tired of their own personal fluff to immerse themselves in the fluff of others, just for a change of pace, without the added confusion of plot. Kind of like a soap opera without the organ music, or watching the neighbors arguing on the front lawn au natural.
I saw “personalities” I didn’t recognize staring back at me from covers by the hundreds demanding I spend $25 to get their take on whatever they felt was relative in this elevator music opera. That, I suppose, is what has become of autobiography. I’m sure not even Franklin could have foreseen it when he coined the term.
Everything was prepackaged, predigested, happily familiar to its target audience. Everything was guaranteed to contain no surprises. Everything was spun like cotton candy, piled high like a bouffant do, as tasteful as sawdust, as imaginative as a day old baloney sandwich on white bread.
And then I got it. A plethora of books jumped out at me from all over the store, all with either “…for idiots,” or “…for dummies” or “the everything book of….” in their title, some with bright black and yellow striped borders, like zebras pressed into service as highway warning signs, others in the same tell-tale shade of pumpkin orange or pus green lest the idiots, the dummies and those whose attention span is defined by synopses miss them. I had stumbled upon the new lowest common denominator, which had, coincidently, set a new standard of low, at least in my lifetime. American’s declining quality of education had finally produced a limbo culture. We do, after all, since the advent of the cell phone, live in a world in which everyone’s encouraged to talk, talk endlessly, talk while doing everything, talk constantly even when they have nothing whatever to say. What else would appeal to that kind of reader?
Awed, I trembled, my eyes glazed over, the acoustical ceiling parted, synthesizers and electric guitars blared pop music while some addled fool mouthed halfwit rhymes in street slang—I had a vision, the fickle finger of fate donned a rubber glove with a loud snap and beckoned in my direction. The name of the chain would be changed to “Bookstore for Idiots.” The sections labeled Non-Fiction, Arts, History, Science, Young Adults, Travel, Biography, Cooking, what-have-you would all be changed to idiots, cretins, morons, mongoloids, brain-dead, dummies, sleepwalkers and wankers.
And my talents, such as they are, could be put to good use writing fortune cookie inserts.