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 afterwards "A labor-intensive business."

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.