Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Nudge

It may sound unlikely, but I rather enjoy confused customers. I don't mean those who can not find the bathrooms, or think they are receiving messages from imaginary third parties to our conversation, or even to those unaccustomed to book shopping in an actual store -- a growing population of the young -- rather, I refer to sound, healthy readers who come to the bookstore not this time to browse or to fetch their next book, but from an uncharacteristic desperation. These customers may have just unexpectedly finished a book at the bust-stop, having mistimed the pages they had left when they left the house that morning. I've done that. They may have lost a book, or left a book behind them and realized this fact too late or too far from home. I've done that as well. Then again, they need not be without a book, to require another. Perhaps what they've been reading no longer suits them, or the hour's commute, or they may have just begun with a book and found attention wandering, the style bad, or the content unpleasant. They may have been forced, finally, to abandon all hope of ever finishing Moby Dick. For whatever reason then, these customers are either book-less, badly matched, or bored, and having come into the bookstore in hopes of better days, they find themselves either overwhelmed or just blinking. They stand stock still in the middle of the sales-floor and just look helplessly 'round, waiting to be told what to read next. Their confusion is temporary, most often needing just a title or two to shake off the mood, but somehow, this once, unable to do so unassisted. Perfectly capable of seeing to themselves most times, for whatever reason, they are lost between books.

I do sympathize.

To help such customers in the usual way is impossible. The known will not do; for that they might better have been left alone. Neither will bestsellers or familiarity of genre answer. What's needed is something unlike, unusual, unexpected. It takes a bit of diagnosis, but if what ails is not to be cured in the routine way, I find a slight shock the best way to jar loose an unexpected enthusiasm. Nothing outlandish. I don't recommend James Ellroy to a Romance reader, or suggest Angela Thirkell to someone stymied by Céline. More a prodding than a push, what's required is a book, or kind of book, like enough to interest but unlikely to have been considered.

Whatever I'm meant to be reading just now -- and there is plenty that I should -- I find I simply can not concentrate enough to read fiction. Novel after novel, for good reasons and bad, has lately been by me let drop, so that the pile of unread fiction by my bed grows too high, the books already in my bag, too heavy to carry on. Story suddenly bores me. My mind refuses narrative. Characters wander off. Nothing pleases, nothing works. Favorite authors, favorite books, provide no sense of relief. It is just a mood, I understand, but when it is on me, all that will do is -- history. Now that may be an odd fact, but it is a fact of my reading. When I can not otherwise read, I can always read history. Familiar history or periods, places and or persons unknown, there is in history, for me, is a refuge.

Nothing relevantly topical or themed, you understand, nothing politically challenging or intended to do anything but tell. I don't so much want to learn, or to be lectured as to watch a parade. The instinct is passive, it calls for pageantry and people watching, whole lives, rounded already, "with a sleep." When fiction fails me, or I fail it, I think this may be why; I have no room left in my head for the allusive, the indefinite, the suggestive. I do not wish to work, worry or wonder. I want only to be told, and told the whole; beginning, middle and end. Popular history -- meaning written as literature rather than polemic or for purposes of academic promotion -- provides, even more than biography, the assurance of resolution. Many lives will pass in history, one need not know them all so well as to have more than a passing sympathy. I do not need a friend, I need a crowd, anonymity, events.

Lately, the mood to disappear being on me as my vacation approaches, I root out yet another little volume of Green's History of the English People. With relief, I find the Stuarts following the Tudors. just as they should, to be undone in turn by the Puritans, just as they so richly deserved. For me, this is perfect relaxation. I did not think to read again any of this long story. My hand just found this little book, Volume VIII, for me, and I am content. Why had I not thought of this before?

And yet, I never do. Instead, history waits patiently for just this mood.

And now I want nothing else. Having come to Cromwell, I want more. Oliver Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans in England, by Sir Charles Firth, finds me too. Published in a little Oxford Classic, it is the right size to match the Green. I own it, but have never read the book before. And Lisa Jardine's Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland's Glory, catches my eye. She's quite good. I've read Jardine before, but this one came into the store unnoticed by me last August.

It seems, I have a topic.

History may not work for the next lost soul. Might be anthropology. Might be genetics. Might be Buddhist meditation. Might be... anything. Anything, so long as it isn't whatever it was I had, or lost, or ought.

And what's less likely, I ask you, than warty old Oliver and Co. tonight? Perhaps the landing of the Orange? Ah, possibilities again.

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