Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lives Made Various By Learning

I don't much mind working at the cash register. In olden days at the bookstore, the cash registers were in the entry way to what was then called "General Books." They were staffed by a separate crew of cashiers and supervised by my late friend Jennifer Kuhn. Now there are no more cashiers, or rather the cashiers that there are are also booksellers. This is a good thing. It means though that any and everyone in the department is scheduled, sooner or later to a shift at the registers. I am lucky that my responsibilities elsewhere tend to keep me from this particular assignment. I can not buy books if I can not leave the cash registers on the other side of the room from the Used Books Desk. This doesn't mean that I do not ring up purchases almost every day. I do. I can cover breaks and answer the bell and do as others have to do most of the day, but to be trapped for an hour there is only possible on the night I close. As I said, I do not mind it. I have no problem ringing up sales, when there are sales to be rung up so late in the store's open hours, but the design of the counter is such that to step away from the registers to do anything at all on a computer means turning one's back to customers which ought not to be done. Yet short of pricing and entering stock into inventory, there are few tasks, and few customers, to occupy one's time by seven or eight in the evening. He may well serve who but stands and waits, but I find it maddening. When I am scheduled, I bring work with me, and then spend the hour darting abruptly between tasks. Most people, when ready to check out and leave, will do something to draw attention to their presence at the counter If I am otherwise occupied, but many simply stand politely and wait to be noticed. I feel a perfect fool, looking up from data entry to see some nice person, often as not cash or credit card in hand, smiling patiently at me. Who knows how long?

Tonight I determined not to repeat this dumb show. I decided instead to bring a book with me, almost any book, and stand, facing front, at my post, ready for the customers that might come up. I thought that if I at least had a little paperback there at the registers I need not go insane watching the clock expectantly. Nor would I mess up, as I tend to do when trying to do something more useful between purchases, and enter the same title three times and then spend fifteen minutes when my shift was over, undoing all the entry I'd done incorrectly. Anyway, that was my thought.

One of the few serious novels we read in my backward little high school was Silas Marner, by George Eliot. It is not a happy memory for me, few are from that period of my education, but Eliot's novel I remember as being torture. The class in which we read that book was taught by an elderly stump of a teacher, from notes older than my parents, and with all the enthusiasm and interest of a shop teacher supervising the annual construction of birdhouses. I remember the droning recitation of contextual background on "cottage labor" and "dissenting religion," the agonizingly slow reading out of long windy passages, followed by questions long since made rhetorical by the teacher's untroubled failure to illicit a single response from the bored and bewildered class. I remember the long, cold silences, interrupted only by the dead question marks left hanging after we drowsily realized that the teacher had, briefly, stopped talking*:



And his habit of assuming a response after the tense, if predictable interval:

"That's right, isolation. The author is describing isolation."

I shudder to think but that somewhere, in some home for the impossibly aged, that wreck of an instructor, if miraculously still among the living, to the extent he was even when I sat in his class, is even now, from no prompting but habit, addressing the silence of the day-room:



"That's right. Wool production."

So why then, facing an all but uninterrupted hour stationed at the cash registers would I take a little signet paperback of Silas Marner, by George Eliot, to keep me company? Of all the unread and or unfinished classics that litter my reading life, this is not even the most regrettable of Eliot's novels. That would have to be Middlemarch, unfinished after how many attempts? Well, Middlemarch was not to hand, and Silas Marner was. But why take an Eliot at all? My only answer to that is, I suppose, in some dark corner of my Protestant past and there I have no desire to go tonight.

This particular printing of the book features what was at the time of the reprint, a "new" introduction by Frederick R. Karl, a respected biographer and scholar, most famously of Conrad, of whom he found enough to say to fill three enormous volumes. He also edited a collection of Conrad's letters so exhaustive as to defy lifting them from the shelf. Very much of the breakfast menu school of academic investigation, Karl, in his own books seems never to have made a note he didn't think worthy of print. I was not aware until tonight that in 1995, he also produced, George Eliot: Voice of a Century: A Biography, capping a long and extremely productive career no doubt. He's dead now.

As I really had arranged things so as to have nothing better to do, I read Karl's introduction. It was surprising short. And yet, in only six pages, Professor Karl does not hesitate to assume the book already read; revealing nearly every major turn of plot, offering at least a couple truly uninspired parallels between Eliot and her central character, and concluding on a note of almost comical indifference as to if, when or how the reader may turn the page and begin reading.

If no other work by Frederick R. Karl should survive his untimely death, I suggest that this short introduction should preserve something of his magic, in however regrettably abbreviated a spell, for generations to come. I should think it would suffice at least to recreate what must have been the almost unbearably familiar atmosphere of his many classrooms, though I sadly never had the honor to sit before him at the lectern. I tell you, I could smell the chalk rising off the page.



What is it that attracts these men to Eliot?! Perhaps the very mysterious power that seems to repel me. But I make too much of this. The truth is, interrupted by only a customer or two, I stood and leaned, and rested my ample ass on a broken stool for a solid hour after finishing the brief introduction and read the first few chapters of Silas Marner for the first time since high school, and I must confess, it wasn't bad! True, I did not read so far as to really test myself. I remember in high school wishing the child dead so as to make the book, and the class, end. I might yet relive that moment. But honestly, I really rather enjoyed what I read tonight. What's more, now that I'm home, fed on the last slice of yesterday's blackberry pie and in my nightshirt, and as soon as I'm done here, I actually intend to fetch my own copy from the set of Eliot I own and keep reading.

Best, I think, not to ask why.

*My work husband reminded me that this teacher of mine would seem to have been Ferris Beuller's Economics instructor, as played by Ben Stein. All I can say is that Ben Stein had a more vivacious personality.

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