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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Attack of the Gadgets

I just finished an essay in Granta 111:  Going Back called "One Hundred Fears of Solitude" by Hal Crowther.  The author is highly critical of the current wired state of Americans, always hooked up to some electronic device, living without valuing privacy or solitude.  As a person choosing not to own a cell phone (a choice more and more looked upon as a freaky oddity), a laptop, or use Facebook, I found this essay refreshing, even though its evidence and conclusions are pretty bleak.  I also recognize the irony of being an online bookseller writing a blog who feels this way.  On the other hand, my computer was purchased second hand from Re/PC about four years ago, runs Windows 2000, and it works just fine.  Yesterday Sean and I went into Radio Shack downtown while walking home from visiting Inner Chapters bookstore because Sean was looking for a USB cable to connect a hard drive full of music to his computer.  While he looked at cables, I glanced at the giant array of cell phones and other devices displayed at the front of the store and I felt like I was visiting an unpleasant shrine to the latest ever-changing consumer electronic gadgetry.  The cable was $20 at Radio Shack, and I suggested to Sean we just stop in the Value Village on the way home, and sure enough, we found the cable he was looking for hanging from a pegboard in the basement for 99 cents.  According to the essay I just read:  "Americans alone discard 100 million computers, cellphones and related devices every year, at a rate of 136,000 per day.  Half a billion of America's old cellphones sit in drawers, dead but not buried."  Another disheartening message of the essay is this:  "Technological saturation coincides precisely with a general decline in literacy.  The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, a test administered just once a decade by the US Department of Education, found that between 1992 and 2003 the percentage of college graduates scoring 'proficient' or above in reading comprehension had shrunk from forty  to thirty-one."

Reading Notes
Speaking of bleak, I read a novel called A Week of This:  A Novel in Seven Days by Nathan Whitlock.  The "story" (it's really just a slice of life) is set in a small cold Canadian town and the characters are a woman who works in a call center (and, returning to the subject above, whose own cellphone is often dead), her husband who runs a failing sporting goods store in a mall, and her two brothers, one of whom is disfigured (by a childhood burn inflicted by their crazy mother) and disabled and works at the Giant Tiger store, the other lives in a freezing squalid apartment, coaches hockey, and is mostly unemployed.  After following this group of depressed underachievers around for a week, I was happy for the book to conclude (inconclusively), yet I have to admit it was well-written, and the characters seemed dishearteningly real.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book Desire

 Sean and I recently watched a film based on (and named after) Michael Pollan's book, The Botany of Desire, which tells the history of four different plants and how they have evolved with help from humans:  apples, potatoes, marijuana, and tulips.  The premise is that while we think we are so clever at using certain plants for our own benefit, although plants don't "think", they are using us humans for their own advancement, as our desire and cultivation of them has made their propagation successful.  For instance, flowers are desirable to humans because of their beauty.  The most extreme example of flowers' desirability is shown in the tulip craze of 17th century Holland, when a single bulb sold for as much as a house.

We just received an order from a book dealer in the Netherlands for fourteen gardening books.  We sell quite a lot of books going to other countries, probably about a quarter of our sales, but rarely such a nice big stack going to one person, as shipping the books costs almost as much as the books themselves.  It's a good feeling to have a colleague in Holland, land of the tulip and beautiful gardens, choose books from our stock.

Reading Notes
I just read After Dark, a very short novel, by Haruki Murakami.  I had read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles a couple of years ago on the recommendation of a friend.  Both books had a dreamy (in fact, one of the characters in After Dark is asleep), surreal quality and I kept wanting there to be a clear explanation for what was happening, but to no avail.  In After Dark, this dreaminess was juxtaposed with scenes of modern Japanese pop culture:  alienated youth, cell phones (okay, maybe these things aren't particularly Japanese), Denny's (not Japanese), love motels (Japnanese!), convenience stores, motorcycles, names of songs.

I'm also reading The Penguin Anthology of Short Stories by Canadian Women and Moving Targets:  Writing with Intent 1982-2004 by Margaret Atwood, which is a book of occasional pieces, including many book reviews.