Yesterday, I went to a bookstore. The colorful spines and covers were all around me and the store smelled ... like a bookstore. Since this is a town with a college, perhaps it's not unusual that there is still a bookstore, but it had been some time since I went into one, let alone planned to buy anything.
For my son, whose birthday is approaching, I gathered up a fat compendium of disaster procedures. What to do when the electricity stops, where to find water, how to weave -- that sort of thing. The book is only half a joke since he may never be inclined to put it to use. But the amount of stuff young people don't know about and can't do sometimes strikes me as astounding. I don't like the panic mode that make such books possible, but I also don't like neglecting what you can do when you have to. So maybe the purchase of that book hinged on a suspicion about the future.
For myself, with the help of a gift certificate my daughter had given me for my birthday, I bought a bit of the past -- a book called "The Bolter." I had heard the author, Frances Osborne, on public radio and liked the stories she wove while being interviewed about a recollection of forbears who had lived in the early part of the 1900's ... wealthy, decadent, promiscuous WASPS who helped to make the high-profile parts of the 1920's and 1930's what they were.
When I got my book home, I skimmed through it idly, looking at the pictures and then reading a bit of the intro. It held out some promise, or so it seemed to me, and yet I could feel my mental gorge rising. This was about people who had and spent money and yet, I imagined, never discussed it. Money was a given and the eye-walloping houses in which they lived were nothing special -- they were just the way things were and the way these people expected them to be. This was simply their atmosphere of life.
What made my gorge rise was not some egalitarian disgust in which the have's and the have-not's were unfavorably compared. What felt like a noose around my neck was the narrowness of what I imagined the thinking to be ... like a Ku Klux Klan rally at which "everyone thinks like me." Here, I suspected, were people with good educations who ignored the particulars of the rest of the world.
As I say, I only skimmed the intro, and it may be that there is more to be gleaned than my own narrowed perspective. But what I did read and what it made me idly think was: "Perhaps there should be a law: Anyone who lacks curiosity will be summarily shot." If the atmosphere is rich and well-cushioned, then that's the atmosphere. But what about the rest of life? Aren't you curious?
And of course the question is unfair. People are curious in their own ways and with varying degrees of seriousness. But I think what got to me was the implied unkindness of a narrow, incurious world. Ku Klux Klan or well-heeled stock broker or religious zealot ... the potential for unkindness wafts up like the scent of skunk cabbage.
I know, I know -- who's to measure, who's to assess? But as the Supreme Court justice said of pornography, "I may not know what it is, but I know it when I see it."
Interesting how my gorge rose without ever reading more than 20 pages. Now, on behalf of my gorge, I will have to read more to get some sense of why those imperative pearl necklaces and large, roomy cars and aren't-I-wicked activities were (if so) as incurious as they were. I will read some more even if something in me rebels at reading and rebels at the subject matter as well. "Greed, anger and ignorance" trip off the tongue lightly. But the particulars are important, gorge or no gorge.