“Work the sentences, if you wish, so that they will mean something. Or so that they mean nothing. Whichever you prefer.”
The limited previews I saw for the Amazon adaptation are what pushed my interest in “the Man in the High Castle” to the reading point. Is the show any good? I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m intrigued. Nazis! Alternate history! Episodic storytelling! DJ Qualls! Ok, maybe not necessarily DJ Qualls, but the Nazis and alternate history piqued my interest. Having read a few other Philip K. Dick novels and handful of short stories, I wanted to see what he would do with the few pieces I knew about.
The only way to explain how I felt reading ‘High Castle’, and I hope this makes sense, is to say nothing actually happened, but no one bothered to tell me.
Similar to other examples of Philip K. Dick I’ve read, there isn’t what you would normally call “world building” going on in his books. It’s more like “world immersion,” as if you wake up to this new reality and although you have no idea what or who anything is, you assume that’s how it has always been. Like laughing along with everyone else even though you don’t get the joke, you don’t freak out and try to understand what’s happening around you in this new reality. Instead, you keep reacting and moving and speaking, picking up clues and understanding things as you go, hoping no one else figures out that you have no idea what you’re doing.
In that regard, I suppose Dick’s writing is as close to real life as one can get, just with slightly more advanced technology that you still don’t know how to work.
Sometimes this method works, such as in “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said,” where that almost literally is the plot. It works a little less so for “Time Out of Joint,” but generally extremely well for his short stories and in “A Scanner Darkly.” You learn the necessary facts of this new reality as you go. The important details are made clear because you need them to survive. You learn by doing, by living. It’s a ‘take only what you need to survive’ sort of writing style.
This style is great, and I’ve loved it in the past, and it’s why I enjoy Dick’s books.But here, with this reality and these characters, it left me constantly waiting. We never really moved forward. While the characters were steadily doing things and interacting with each other and proving they knew on another and were all connected, it never felt like they were ever moving about in the same reality. They kept doing but never moving. Acting but never affecting.
But here, with this reality and these characters, it left me constantly waiting. We never really moved forward. While the characters were always doing things and interacting with each other and proving they knew one another and were all connected, it never felt like they were actually moving about in the same reality. They kept doing but never moving. Acting but never affecting.
I kept turning the page. They kept going through the motions. And we all kept waiting to see where we were going and whether it was worth it.
But even as these characters met their ends and found explanations and tried to understand what they had learned from what they’d done, there didn’t seem to be much of a point to it. I was left holding a book that was more an unfinished thought then fully formed novel. I didn’t grow into understanding the reality so I didn’t care about the people in it, which was ok because the same could be said for any of the characters in it as well.
While this won’t turn me off reading more Philip K. Dick, or even deter me from checking out the tv show, this wouldn’t be the first, third or even fifth book by him I recommend. Not when he much better-written novels and stories to chose from that successfully pull off his immersion style of writing.
I may not work at a bookstore, but that doesn’t mean I’m no longer a bookseller. Gas Station Burrito Used Books is open for business
I used to joke that all of the books I was buying and stockpiling and collecting, (because collecting is just the word hoarders use to sound less creepy) was my retirement fund. One day I’d be retired with nothing else to do but write and drink coffee and read. And yell at those goddamned kids to get off my lawn. I can’t wait to yell at kids. And I’ll get to do all this while wearing dapper old man sweaters. Probably with my new slacks, since I’d be at the age then to use the word slacks without sounding creepy. I’d be an old, respectable, non-creepy book collecting, slacks wearing old man. Life would be good.
Life would be good because I’d finally get to read all these books that I bought over the years; the ones that sounded interesting enough to take as advanced readers, or to buy for a few dollars at a yard sale or used book sale. They were interesting enough to buy, but never quite interesting enough to read immediately. Or I’d start reading one only to get distracted by a dozen other equally interesting titles.
Unfortunately, it just isn’t possible to hold onto all these books anymore. As I may have to with my actual retirement fund (the one that allegedly has real money in it, depending on the mood of the stock market), it’s time to cash it in.
When I moved in with my girlfriend about 99% of my books had to get boxed up; we simply didn’t have the room in the apartment. This didn’t stop me from buying more books, you understand, it only meant that the ones I had before went into storage. I even bought second copies of books I knew were boxed up because it was easier than digging through my storage unit (read: my parent’s attic)
By sort, of course, I mean fight about what had to stay and what to go. Books are very serious in this house. There have been tears. Those tears may have been mine…
The plan was to donate the twenty or so boxes of books and movies that didn’t make the cut to the annual used book sale at the Kenmore Library, but we missed the drop-off. Nothing’s going on with that room yet, so I suppose we could shut the door and ignore them until next year, or even donate them somewhere else. But that would require me carrying all of those boxes down the stairs and making multiple trips to wherever. Look, they just put up another season of Longmire on Netflix, I don’t have time for that.
Or, instead, I could put them up for sale. Then I only have to carry the books down the stairs one at a time. As they sell. And people give me money. Much better plan.
The movies are all doubles from when we merged our collections, so don’t judge me for selling my Bourne collection. Don’t worry, dude, I still have copies.
And the books, well, they’re a little bit of everything. From titles I bought for school to ‘advanced readers’ publishers sent out ahead of a book’s release, to terrible late-night Wikipedia rabbit-hole induced used book purchases.
There’s good and bad, the expected and ‘why, just why’ titles. It’s going to take a while to get everything posted and organized and sorted, so check them out, bookmark the pages, and keep checking back.
I’m proud of all my books, even the ones I’m selling off. There was a reason I picked up everyone one of them, something in every one of these books that made me take it home. I hope you find something in there you like, too.
It happens throughout the year, but it’s during the holidays when this particular customer has the power to reach right into your chest and rip out your heart, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom style. Like Mola Ram, this heartbreaking customer lies in plain sight, manipulating you and all those around them to their evil ends.
Or… in order to purchase Christmas presents. Ok, it may not be quite so sinister as enslaving children and stealing sacred stones towards the ultimate goal of world domination in the name of the great Kali, but it’s pretty up there.
The set-up is that you never see them coming. They usually don’t show up wearing a necklace of teeth or a ram’s skull with a shrunken head mounted on it. Fashion scarves and sensible outerwear, is what this lot typically appears wearing. They seem so sweet, so trustworthy; they could be your mother, your favorite aunt. Don’t let this fool you! They are no less dangerous than Thuggee high priest high on chilled monkey brain and snake surprise.
“I’m looking for this book for my son,” she asked, “I’ve looked on all the tables but can’t seem to find it. It’s called the Boys in the Boat.”
“Oh yeah, we should definitely have that,” I say, and type it in to the computer to pull up where in the store we put it. “I remember when that came out, I think it was one of the Buffalo News’ picks, everyone was looking for it.”
Small talk. I’m not particularly good at small talk, but I try. Usually I lose interest in what I’m saying and just kind of trail off. In most cases, it’s just to stall until our Pentium 4 IBMs can process the search and tell me that the book I’m looking for is, in fact, only six feet away. In my defense, we sold out of the stack of them on the table, so I couldn’t physically see the book from where I was standing. It was only on the floor underneath the table. Shut up.
I took her over, and put the book in her hand as we do, and prepared to have praise showered upon me before returning to the information desk where the next customer will undoubtedly crush out the desperate, smoldering attempt at holiday cheer I feel by yelling at me that we are “raping our customers” because our online prices are lower than those in-store.
But that is not to be, not yet.
“You don’t happen to have this in hardcover, do you? He really prefers that,” she says.
You can’t win.
Da Vinci Code, anything even remotely Harry Potter, or pretty much anything you’ve seen on the bestsellers’ list. These books can spend years in hardcover and all you hear is, “Do you have this in paperback? Why isn’t this in paperback? When is this coming out in paperback? Amazon has this in paperback, you know, I’ll just buy it there.”
Customers will ask for James Patterson’s newest release in paperback. That book came out three weeks ago: spoilers, it’s not in paperback. Not for a year. At least. And Amazon doesn’t have it in paperback, they have the option to preorder it in paperback. When it comes out. In six months.
It never fails though. As soon as it hits paperback and all the hardcovers have been returned because, well, who would want them anymore, that’s when suddenly everyone needs the hardcover. Hey, but sometimes we have one.
“I had one the other day, let me look it up again and see if we still have it.”
I check. One. One book on hand. Usually, this means we’re never going to see it, that we’re never going to find it. It’s difficult enough any other time of year, but Christmas? Yeah, it goes something like this:
you’re going to check the shelf, check the cart, check the other cart, check the sorting table, check the computer for when it came in, check the table again, look at pile of boxes still unopened and wonder, give up, check three other carts just because, look on the return shelf, check the computer again to make sure it wasn’t on hold, hope the hold didn’t expire in the computer but that the book was still physically on the holds shelf, check the shelf again, check the computer again to see when it came in, feel your heart sink when you realize it was six months ago, check the cart, check the shelf and find it.
You found it. You found it one bookshelf over and three shelves down from where it was supposed to be, and in no way alphabetical by author. But it’s there. It’s there!
I hand it over to her, and she’s as excited as I am. The store is incredibly busy, and she saw you running trying to find that single copy for her. Against the odds, you found it and its still looks perfect. It’s a little Christmas miracle.
Until three hours later you find it on the “What Teens are Reading” table under a copy of Hollow City, and your heart breaks a little. This happens all year long, you should be used to it. But it’s always more difficult during the holidays. While you’re searching for these books, dodging customers and digging through carts and shelves to find what they’ve whined about and guilted you to find, while you’re searching for this perfect gift, this present, they absolutely have to have or Christmas is ruined forever, you really think you’re making a difference.
That moment of excitement, of victory, you feel when you find that book—spot it out the corner of your eye on a completely wrong shelf, entirely by chance—is supposed to be exactly what someone is going to feel when they open this gift on Christmas. It’s a little Christmas present from Jesus and Santa and the bookselling gods, all for you.
So it hurts. It hurts when, for whatever reason (and one completely out of your control) you find that book discarded hours later. That was your connection to someone, your contribution to making someone’s holiday just a little bit more special. This time of year, it will crush your holiday spirit, and every time it will break your heart, just a little.
Some of these heartbreakers you can spot. You’ll start to predict when you’ll find that book later that night; their hesitation taking it from your hand, their instantly asking the price, them immediately slapping you in the face with it. (At which point, according to the code of bookseller conduct, you must challenge them to a dual at sunrise the next Tuesday before the new releases are put on sale.) Some take you by surprise. But if you want to work in a bookstore for Christmas, you won’t let it stop you. You can’t. You have to keep going, keep smiling, keep searching and checking and double checking for whatever crazy thing they may be asking for. One in ten might break your heart, but the rest? Well, actually, the rest will break your heart too.
It should still break, but for a different reason. Instead, it should break a little each time because the rest of those people, each and every one of those customers, now have that perfect gift they were looking for. On Christmas morning, they’ll get to see someone’s face light up as they open it. It might be the first book in a series a kid was hoping for, it could be a memoir by someone’s favorite musician, it might be a party game they want to open immediately and start playing.
That’s why you go home every day exhausted and sore and with your feet soaking in sweat and reeking in a way you never imagined possible. Seriously, it feels like you’re walking on sponges—that’s not normal. But it’s ok. It’s ok. As long as you remember that every person who walks through those doors isn’t just asking for your help, they are inviting you to be a part of their holiday experience. You’re not a computer screen promising free shipping if they spend a little more money. You’re the person who saw in their face just how much they wanted this game or movie or terrible teen series about steampunk assassins fighting supernatural in a prep school on the site of a former psych hospital, and you checked every shelf, every cart and shoved that old lady out of your way to get that perfect item for them.
They can’t do it without you. Literally. They can’t. These people will wander around the store in a daze until you ask them what they’re looking for. If it wasn’t for you they’d still be there at four in the morning wandering in slow motion down the middle of the aisle and stopping randomly for no reason at all.
Instead, because of you, they’re able to make someone’s Christmas. So be ready for the heartbreaker who will hide the book you found for them under that giant pile of Sons of Anarchy Collector’s Edition—no, I’m just kidding. We don’t have that, no one does, that’s on backorder until Valentine’s.
Be ready for them, those spirit-crushers who don’t realize finding that book for them was the sad high point of your day. But be ready for the other heartbreakers, too. The ones who take the books you found for them and give them a special place under their tree, who get excited to watch it get opened, who have given it a place in the life of someone they care about. You are going to save Christmas. You are going to change someone’s life.
So stay strong, don’t forget to smile, always double check the shelf, and for God’s sake man, change your socks.