Thursday, March 04, 2004

I rarely leave home without at least one book to read. So I'm naturally curious when I see someone else reading in public. Unfortunately, I've noticed that Books Read In Public fall into a few considerably less-than-interesting categories. Almost without fail, people are reading either

a.) the Bible, or something to do with it,

b.) something involving weight-loss,

c.) the latest John Grisham,

or -- perhaps worst of all . . .

d.) books about TV.

This is a disastrous state of affairs. There are so many worthwhile, relatively esoteric books out there I can only wish I had the time to read -- and these bastards are perfectly content to read fluff.

I've always been rather amazed at the spectacle presented by Barnes & Noble and Borders. These are stores stocked ceiling-high with books by almost every note-worthy author. (With one inexplicable exception: One of the best writers in America today, Steve Erickson, is utterly absent from the shelves at my local B&N . . .)

But from what I can tell, no one's buying anything new and interesting. Instead, readers obligingly head for the bestsellers, the Atkins Diet section, the "Christian Inspiration" aisle. Or worse, the "graphic novels" or the so-called "news" stands.

I remember an interview with Norman Mailer on NPR. He predicted the novel would soon become obsolete, just how poetry is generally perceived as somewhat obscure and archaic by contemporary readers. In the near-future, actual novel-reading might be an almost unbearable eccentricity.

There are a number of ominous trends within the publishing industry that appear to support Mailer's prediction. Did you know that there's a spin-off of the ghastly Christian Fundamentalist "Left Behind" saga targeted at juveniles? No kidding. It's called, accurately enough, "Left Behind: The Kids." Or something like that. The point of this series -- and the point I'm trying to make about so much of today's "literature" -- is that it's not even remotely intended to provide an aesthetic experience, but to sow ideological seeds. (I find it distinctly amusing that so much of this garbage is co-authored, as if recycled Armageddon fantasies require the combined mental might of two authors -- and I suppose since we're talking about Fundamentalists, they very well might . . .)

Most of the time the ideology being packaged is laughable and harmless, as in the case of Atkins devotees. But then there's the truly detestable stuff: masochistic biblical fantasies masquerading as Tom Clancy-esque thrillers; demeaning supernatural claptrap disguised as "inspiration" or "self-help." Once upon a time, you found cheaply printed gospel tracts in restroom stalls; now you find their elegantly bound and savvily marketed descendents combating for shelf-space in actual stores.

And people can't get enough. Like the "reality TV" craze, spin-offs proliferate with the tenacity of kudzu vine. Any day now, I expect to find "Chicken Soup for the Soul for Dummies" staring back at me from a prominent display. The Wal-Mart-ization of the written word will have triumphed, leaving an embittered subculture to hoard the few remaining works of Kafka and Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut . . .

But, as usual, I'm getting ahead of myself.

(Parting thought: Isn't it odd that, for a series about the End of the World, the "Left Behind" books just keep coming? There are like 50 of the fucking things now . . .)

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