Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wynken, Blynken and Nod

Working in a bookstore, there are so many authors whose names one knows as one might the names of old classmates, or the former spouses of coworkers, or retired local assemblymen; the familiarity of the name is just enough to produce a nod but not enough for a smile. Sometimes a title can set the nod oscillating, and that's enough, but no endorsement is implied. Tricky business, nodding. Too often it can be mistaken for agree to more than the facts. Someone asks me for the new book by an economist, the name not quite right, the title unfamiliar, but a more familiar book by the same man is referenced and all is suddenly clear to me and we are off to find Thomas Sowell. I've never read a book by Thomas Sowell. I am unlikely to ever read a book by Thomas Sowell. I am happy to help someone find the books of Thomas Sowell, but I am not prepared for the assumption to be made by my customer that I have read Thomas Sowell, that I think or know anything much about him, or that I necessarily endorse any of the opinion my customer insists Thomas Sowell represents. It is worth mentioning that my customer may have read no more of Thomas Sowell than have I, having, after all, not quite got the man's name right, suggesting that my customer may only know the writer by way of a talk radio program, or a conversation with a brother-in-law, but this, in my experience, is no guarantee that my customer will not want to tell me all about Thomas Sowell. All well and good. Listening is a part of the job. Should my customer then assume -- again the dangerous, unsmiling and silent nod -- not only what I'm being told must be obvious to any thinking person and that I will of course agree that it all sounds eminently sensible, there is still the possibility of a sale and a graceful escape. There are always neutral things to be said in even this situation that need not challenge any of the assumptions being made: that the fellow certainly seems to have lasted, that his publisher is eminently respectable, etc., etc. Should all else fail, one can always apologize and rush off to answer the phone that may or may not be ringing.

There is however a persistence in some people that, having already presumed too much on our brief acquaintance, can not be satisfied until actual agreement has been reached, or until a disagreement is admitted, or at least until the bookseller's will to live is exhausted. An admission of ignorance, I've found, is no help. Rather this tends only to encourage elaboration. The only thing for it then, when asked at last one too many times if something isn't obvious, or how can anyone doubt, or surely one must agree, is to refuse everything but a respectful insistence that books will not shelve themselves, that the desk needs dusting, or that one's opinion on urgent matters is desperately needed in an office elsewhere in the building; in short, one must simply run away.

What one must never do in retail, unless every avenue of polite appeasement has failed and no escape is possible, is to finally, flatly disagree. And yet one does occasionally have to.

This is, after all what was expected, often as not. I've found that there are people not satisfied with anything less. It is not a service to anyone, but sometimes things simply must be said -- as quickly and politely as possible -- but said nonetheless.

So, no, I will not be reading Thomas Sowell, but I sincerely hope my customer enjoys the book.

No, I do not think it a pity that more African Americans aren't Republicans, but not being either myself, I hardly feel my opinion should much matter to anyone who is.

No, I do not know that I do agree, but then I can't imagine why my agreement is necessary, as my only purpose in the circumstances is to sell a book about which my customer so obviously already feels so passionate.

There is an unhappy population that can not seem to distinguish between attention and interest, that seems to require if not proof of my loyalty to opinions I do not mean to pretend to hold, then at least a fight. I blame my unfortunate habit of nodding. I have never quite mastered the neutral stillness that allows for no hint of any but the most professionally circumscribed interest in the topic to hand. I do try though. I do try.

I don't mean to suggest that this kind of bullying surmise is made only by the readers, or potential readers, of Hoover Institute intellectuals. If that seems more frequently to be the case, that is perhaps because I am in fact less likely to nod intentionally or meaningfully when addressed by same. They are not wrong altogether in suspecting my disinterest in the opinions of the defenders of laissez-faire capitalism. I am, as it happens, just as disinclined to listen, at first or secondhand, to a disquisition of Noam Chomsky's media criticism, or participate in an exchange on the finer points of Catherine McKinnon's understanding of the law.

And I frankly don't think it much matters to anyone who would take a nod from a book-clerk as an invitation to deeper discourse, what my opinion actually is on any book. One comes to recognize the type, even if I have yet to find a good way of avoiding them altogether. Can't be done, in a bookstore. I've tried.

I do find my neck stiffening quite purposefully nowadays though when anyone asks for the latest book by Glenn Beck. Better safe than sorry.

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