Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Perfect Hour

I rarely get to lunch before two in the afternoon. This suits me fine. The later I eat, the likelier it is that the day will go that much faster and I will get home that much sooner. I know that this is irrational and without any basis physical reality, yet I believe it completely. No matter when I am scheduled then, I try to hold my lunch off as long as I can without growing faint, a most unlikely possibility, or making a mess of my own or anyone else's assignments. There are days though, when I am grateful to go when I'm expected to. Sometimes I am simply too hungry to wait. Other times, I simply need the break from my job. Today was such a day.

It wasn't as if anything regrettable happened; there were no unreasonable sellers, or impossible customers. There is simply such a volume of used books coming in just now, as they tend to at the end of summer, and so few of us at the Used Books Desk, that the unprocessed inventory has started to swamp us. It begins to seem impossible to catch up. Added to the books we are buying, are the books coming back to the desk, old and unsold books, that have to be assigned new prices, transferred or clearanced. The persons responsible for managing the inventory in their sections tend to pull books, new and used, only in anticipation of surges in new inventory arriving. In recent weeks, they have been getting ready for the holiday books which have already begun to come in. As these adjustments to inventory have never been done any more systematically than this, the used books we get back seem always to come at the exact periods when our used buying increases, staff are either on vacation or off sick, and our work, already fairly frantic, becomes manic. It is, frankly, exhausting.

An hour away from all this, to eat a taco, and read a bit of history, seems a perfect heaven. Coming at last, regrettably, to the last volume of John Richard Green's magisterial Victorian book, A History of the English People, I wanted nothing so much as to read and eat in peace. But I had forgotten just how crowded the eateries along The Ave. can be at the more usual hours for lunch, and having neglected to pack myself a lunch today, I found I had no choice but to wade right into the crowds and join the general struggle to find a table. Luck was with me though. I found a table, cleaned it off with napkins, and settled in to read and eat.

Only in in this, the tenth volume of his history, does Green really allow himself a moment's undisguised, and typically Victorian enthusiasm for the glory that was, and was assumed always to be, the British Empire. It was touching to read the passage when he finally burst in innocent pleasure. "Civilization" was what he celebrated, the export of law, efficient bureaucracy, education, technology, a common, English, language, etc. It was endearingly naive. Englishmen of Green's remarkable generation really did believe they were witness to a dawning Golden Age. Green, I think, can be forgiven his presumption. I can not think of another historian of the period who was, in the main, less of a jingo, more even tempered and fair, and more willing to examine the implications of history for commoner and king alike. And the amazing labor of having produced such a comprehensive and satisfying history, with basically none of the modern conveniences of reference -- Green's health at various points in the writing and research requiring him to retire to the warmer climes of Italy, taking his library and boxes with him on ship, carriage and cart -- makes Green's History a fit monument to all that was best in that most productive, and optimistic age.

Settling down then to read Green to the end, I was disconcerted to find someone looming up on the other side of my lunch. A young man, tall as a redwood, dressed in basketball shorts and a hooded sweatshirt, politely asked if he might share my table, as there were none open elsewhere. I consented, of course, but with some resentment. The last thing I wanted just then was either company, conversation, or the distraction of some giant boy messily eating a burrito and chatting loudly on his cellphone. When he put down his tray and bent himself into the chair opposite, his impossibly long legs extended out the other side. Even with his enormous feet tucked back under his chair, his great, naked knees projected out under my left elbow. I concentrated on my book and my lunch and tried my best to ignore him.

I was glad to see that he seemed politely disinterested in me, being wholly occupied with eating the two massive burritos he had before him. I admit, I could not resist peeking over my book to witness surreptitiously this remarkable feat, which he accomplished with the minimum of fuss; each massy weight of rice, beans and meat, etc., being rather daintily handled, and yet consumed in what could not have been more than ten minutes and roughly the same number of bites. I was reminded of seeing a grizzly eat a magnificent, adult salmon in a gulp.

Only when he'd eaten both his burritos and returned from the drinks station with yet another giant cup of soda, did he settle down to study his school books. He was quite careful with these, arranging his text in such a way as to never violate the invisible line that divided his half of the table from mine. When I too had finished my comparatively modest repast, I allowed myself a look at his book. I'd assumed it would be some dull business of statistics, sociology or the like. I was tickled to read, albeit up-side-down and imperfectly, the names of Augustus and Pompey! I could not resist intruding on his studies, and asked if he was a student of history?

"Not really, but I need to make up some credits."

Not discouraged by this answer, I pressed him a little further. What did he think of these Romans he was reading about? Did their experience speak in any way to his own?

He said he found the Romans to be brave and ambitious, but ultimately foolish in their ambitions, or words to that effect. When I asked him, "How so?" his reply was wonderful. After a moment's reflection, he said,

"They never bothered asking anybody if they wanted to be Roman. Most people didn't, I'd guess."

And there, in wonderfully few words, is the whole history of Empire! from the ancient world, to the British, to our own misadventures in the East.

Coming back to the store after my excellent lunch, in excellent if unanticipated company, I faced my own petty preoccupations with a renewed faith in education, the rising generation, and the lessons of history.

A perfect lunch hour.

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