Thursday, December 29, 2011

How Far We've Come; How Little We've Changed

How Far We've Come

Just got back from B&N. A kind reader recommended I pick up copies of David Grossman's On Killing and On Combat to better understand the psyche of a warrior. Problem was, the e-book for On Killing was (IMHO) overpriced—and no e-book version of On Combat was even available.

To say that my experience at B&N was poor would be an understatement. I came to find a book, and I ended up struggling to find a bookstand. The changes to my local big-box-book retailer had been extensive. An enormous Nook station occupied the entire front of the store, a newly enlarged 'Hallmark store' was invading the space once dedicated to hardcover new releases, and row after row of children's toys cluttered the store's center.

I didn't even know where to go at first. The actual books now occupied the periphery, and they were both consistently out of order and in short supply. I searched the three similar sounding sections for On Killing before giving. I ended up in line at the help desk. There, the five of us standing there like grazing cattle waited fifteen minutes for assistance.

When the harried worker finally arrived, she told 2 out of the 3 people ahead of me that their books were not in stock.

One snidely replied, "But you've got Snooki," before storming out.

And they did. There were at least 20 hardcover copies of Nicole Polizzi's handiwork stacked in front of the Self-help Section.

I knew I was screwed before I spoke. The staffer had never heard of David Grossman or On Killing, the book was not in stock, and I was informed that I would have to wait a week for it to be delivered to the store. If I wanted sent to my home, I would have to pay an additional S&H fee.

I declined. Instead, I pulled out my phone, typed "on killing" into Google, and made a 1-Click purchase on Amazon. The whole process took ten seconds. The book will be at my home tomorrow, and the Amazon purchase price was $2 less than the B&N price pre-S&H.

Some context here. These are On Killing's stats on Amazon:

#2 in Books > Law > Criminal Law > Law Enforcement
#6 in Books > History > Military Science
#6 in Books > Politics & Social Sciences > Crime & Criminals  > Criminology

On Killing is commonly read by law enforcement personnel and was nominated for a Pulitzer. It is on the U.S. Marine Corps Commandant's required reading list. The B&N I visited was larger than a supermarket. The space reserved for Military History, Law Enforcement Lit, the Social Sciences was smaller than the parking spot for my car. Can this business model work? I have no friggin' idea—but I'd really like a place in town where I can buy some freakin' books.


How Little We've Changed

The cover and the art above are from the December 5th 2011 issue of the New Yorker. Inside is a rather syrupy article by Adam Gopnik about fantasy books for young adults. If you can survive listening to over an hour of NPR, I'd recommend it.

Some highlights:

At Oxford in the nineteen-forties, Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was generally considered the most boring lecturer around, teaching the most boring subject known to man, Anglo-Saxon philology and literature, in the most boring way imaginable. “Incoherent and often inaudible” was Kingsley Amis’s verdict on his teacher
It is still one of the finest jests of the modern muses that this fogged-in English don was going home nights to work on perhaps the most popular adventure story ever written, thereby inventing one of the most successful commercial formulas that publishing possesses, and establishing the foundation of the modern fantasy industry. 
Modernist ambiguity, or realist emotional ambivalence, is unknown to Tolkien—the good people are very good, the bad people very bad, and though occasionally a character may be tossed between good and evil, like Gollum, it is self-interest, rather than conscience, that makes him tip back and forth. Betrayal and temptation happen; inner doubts do not. Gandalf and Aragorn never say, as even the most patriotic real-world general might, “I don’t know which side I should be on, or, indeed, if any side is worth taking.” Nor does any Mordor general stop to reflect, as even many German officers did, on the tension between duty and morality: there are no Hectors, bad guys we come to admire, or Agamemnons, good guys we come to deplore. (Comic-book moralities, despite their reputation, are craftier; the “X-Men” series is powerful partly because it’s clear that, if you and I were mutants, we would quite possibly side with the evil Magneto.)
What substitutes for psychology in Tolkien and his followers, and keeps the stories from seeming barrenly external, is what preceded psychology in epic literature: an overwhelming sense of history and, with it, a sense of loss. The constant evocation of lost or fading glory—Númenor has fallen, the elves are leaving Middle-earth—does the emotional work that mixed-up minds do in realist fiction. We know that Westernesse is lost even before we know what the hell Westernesse was, and our feeling for its loss lends dimension to those who have lost it. (There is also, in Tolkien, the complete elimination of lust as a normal motive in daily life. The wicked Wormtongue lusts for Éowyn at the court of Rohan, but this is thought to be very creepy.)

And this on Twilight:

What’s striking is how little escapism there is in these stories of vampires and werewolves. This is how the Bellas of the world actually experience their lives, torn between the cool, sensitive boy from the strange, affluent family and the dishy athletic boy from across the tracks. It’s “My So-Called Life,” with fangs and fur. The genius of the narrative lies in how neatly the familiar experiences are turned into occult ones; the Cullens, for instance, are very much like the non-vampire family in “Endless Love”; even the terrifying Volturi are the Italian family you go and stay with in Europe. The tedious normalcy of the “Twilight” books is what gives them their shiver; this is not so much the life that a teen-age girl would wish to have but the one that she already has, rearranged with heightened symbols. Your life could be like this; seen properly, from inside, it is like this.

The rest can be found here.

The article goes down better while sipping brandy and smoking a pipe.*


*Do not smoke pipes. Pipes cause cancer. I will have to irradiate you. And only drink brandy in moderation. I don't want to have to pump your stomach too.