|Satori in Bookland
My late father-in-law, Werner Hochwald, was an economist. One of his academic
specialties was state economy. Not individual states, but countries. Anyway,
big numbers. He was once visiting us when a customer came over to look at some
books. He observed this process with an economist's eye and commented dryly
I often think of his comment. The other day I was browsing through the outside
offerings of a local bookshop. The books in the carts are the bibliographical
equivalent of the speech in The Winter's Tale: sans everything. Torn spines,
cracked joints, water stains, and all the infirmities of ill use and old age.
I idly wondered whether a book I hadn't thought about for a long while, a book
on baby care ghostwritten by H. L. Mencken , might be lurking on a shelf which
seemed to hold some advice books of the same era. No luck, but it made me think.
I have spent literally and conservatively thousands of hours looking at random
assortments of books, all the time checking at a near-unconscious level what
was impinging on my eyes with a mental list of obscurities like Mencken's book.
It is hard to fractionate the contents of a mental register into individual
time units, but let's say that each book I look at is compared to the database
in my head in a millisecond, and then rejected. Thousands of hours, and even
a millisecond devoted to fruitlessly searching for a book adds up. Now think
of all the other book scouts and dealers combing through everything from libraries
to junk piles. The number of work hours which go into bringing a single copy
of Mencken's baby book to market is absolutely staggering. From that point
of view, the high prices asked for such oddities when they are offered is justified.
So, my time adds up. If I were to get paid for all the time I put in, every
one of my books would conservatively cost ten thousand dollars at least. But
I often settle for twenty bucks. Recently, I put a bunch of books and booklets
on line, and quickly received an inquiry from a bookseller for an inexpensive
pamphlet on Buddhist frescos discovered in China in the nineteen-twenties.
Generally inquiries are to orders like kissing your sister is to the real thing.
After going through the usual negotiations this party, taking a couple of weeks
to think it over, decided to buy it. Now, I forgot to mention that this was
a Buddhist bookshop, or so their name, indicated. Like most people, I think
Buddhism is a commendable religion. Its philosophy is benign. I think of it
as the Canada of religions.
Let's call them Mahayana Books. Every time I got an e-mail from Mahayana,
it was in another name. I felt like I was dealing with the sixteen arhats.
In the short run, they did not pay. After a couple of more weeks, I felt like
I was being tested, like a student in one of those Zen riddles. What is the
sound of a check not arriving? I began to seethe in my full Mr. Natural mode.
OH, MAYBE YOU'RE TOO BUSY MEDITATING TO SEND A CHECK. Or: OH, THE DALAI LAMA
IS IN A CITY NEAR YOU. I GUESS YOU'VE GONE OFF TO SEE HIM. Finally, I succumbed
and sent another e-mail. Did they remember this little matter of $22? Back
came the answer from arhat no. 10 or so. Sorry, they had forgotten and would
send a check. Tell me another one. So I wrote a haiku.
We will send a check.
Summer's spiders spin cobwebs
On the ordered book.
In the end I thought the whole thing was so character-improving I did not
mind when the check never came. It might, in another cosmic cycle. But by then
I might not be a bookseller. With all the karma I've gained, I might be reborn
as - oh, I don't know - maybe a talk-show host.