Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Phone Grunt


My apologies. It seems to be the norm in the blogo-net that one must routinely apologize for their late arrivals and missed connections, but to my dear friends I must offer my sincerest sorrys. It has been over a month since my last post.

My excuse, however feeble, is that I actually haven't been at Booth and Noble. I have been instead on a whirlwind adventure, starting from the foothills of the Northeast, traversing the dusty plains of the Midwest, and finally culminating in the moist happiness of the Far East.

But, upon my return to Booth and Noble, I was not disappointed by the tearful horror that greeted me. I took not one, but two phone calls on Sunday from what could only (at best) be described as mutant gorillas who learned how to speak but did not, as such, develop the capacity to reason or form coherent thoughts.

Imagine, if you will, a jungle of talking beasts. But instead of forming thoughts that make sense, these poor animals simply move their lips and emit a form of breath. By pursing their lips and moving their tongue into a number of complicated formations, they can simulate what speech sounds like. But they are as far removed from having an intelligent thought as my bookcase is from being edible.

But I digress. Two phone calls, within minutes of each other. The first begins averagely enough:

"Thank you for calling Booth and Noble, how can I help you?"

A pleasant elderly lady's voice peeks through the speaker: "Yes, where are you?"

The briefest of pauses. "...I'm in Booth and Noble."

"No, I mean, where is your store?"

"Oh! We're in the Native American Commons."

"Is that a mall?"

"Well...it's an outdoor shopping area. There's a Booth-Mart, a Booth's, and Booth Chopper, and a Booth Wireless store too."

"Can I get there in my car?"


"How do I get there from Pacey Street?"

"I don't know where Pacey Street is, ma'am."

"Well how do you like that? I thought you'd be able to help."

"Ma'am, we're between Middle Ave, or Route 3 and Booth-Booth Road, which is Route 8. You can't miss us. We're the big building with Booth and Noble written on the side."

"Well, I don't know if you'll see me later. I may not make it."

The phone clicked to a standstill and I breathed a sigh. At least, I thought to myself, this would be the most irritating thing to happen all day.

Then the phone rang again.

"Hello, thank you for calling Booth and Noble, how can I help you?"

It was a young woman on the phone. A young woman who sounded like she was speaking to me from another planet. "Yes, I put a book on hold last week and I wanted to check to see if it was still there."

"Ok, well we usually only hold books for three days, but I'll check. What's your name?"



"No, Kayly."



"Ok, I'll check." I check. No name up there.

"What book is it?" I ask, not unreasonably.

"The SAT II Book on Literature."

I look again.

"Sorry, I couldn't find the book up at the cash registers. Why don't I check on the shelf for you?"

"Ok, why don't you?" comes the snarled reply.

I hurried to the shelf like a good little elf. After five minutes of exhaustive searching I turned back to the phone.

"I'm sorry, I can't find it on the shelf. Are you sure you gave the name Kayly?"

"Maybe I gave them a different name."

I sighed. Why should this day be any different?

"What name might you have given them?"


Let me check for you.

It was under "John," of course.

"Yes, we have that. I'll hold it until the end of tomorrow for you."

"Thank you! Good bye."

[dramatic pause.]

Fifteen minutes later...

"thank you for calling Booth and Noble, how can I help you?"

"yeah, you know that book I reserved?"

"who is this?"

"Kayly John. You know that book I reserved?"

"Yes, I do. I looked all over for it, remember?"

"What is it called?"


"What is it called?"

I checked the exact title.

"It's called The SAT II Literature Review Book."

"Ok, thanks."


[dramatic pause.]


"Hi, it's me again."


"Can you tell me the author on that book?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Who wrote it?"

I check for Kayly. I tell her: "Diane Amberson and Jason Anderton"

"Are you sure?"

"Kayly, I'm looking at the book right now."

"Well, I'm looking at it online, and it only says one author."

"I really don't know what to tell you. Would you like me to put the book back on the shelf?"

"No," she says. "I'm planning on coming in to look at it soon."

Think on that, dear reader. Think on that.

Monday, September 8, 2008

ARGH Grunt


I knew it was going to be a bad day at the very first customer. A short, squat, pallid-looking elderly lady walks in, followed by her even older, shorter, squatier, and more-pallid-looking mother. The proceed to gab and gossip, sounding like a couple of chipmunks. They head over to the Pop Standards section (of course).

Giggle giggle giggle. Gab gab gab. "HEY THIS SONG IS GREAT" one shouts at other when she has the headphones on. No worries ma'am - I'm glad the cashier at the front of the store was able to hear that you liked the song - oh, and he loves your singing too.

Then one of them walks up to me:
"Do you have any Julie Andrews?"

"Yes, she's in pop standards, actually, rather close to where you were standing." I walk with her over to the Pop Standards section and point out the CDs.

The Pop Standards section is almost as far away from the desk where I sit as you can get, by the way.

She wanders around Julie Andrews for a minute, and then walks back to me.

"What about Michael Buble?"

"What about him?"

"Do you have any of his CDs?"

..."Yes, they're in Pop Standards, approximately 10 inches from Julie Andrews."

I walk across the department with her and show them to her. At this point, I usually say something like: "It's easy to find anyone you want, because its organized alphabetically," and they usually are able to find the other people they want.

I say this and walk back to my desk.

Two minutes later:

"Do you have any Frank Sinatra?"

"Excuse me?"

"Frank Sinatra? Do you have any? CDs?"

You mean the most popular singer in the English speaking world? Ol' Blue Eyes? The man constantly sampled, parodied, homaged, revered, feared, sung and possibly loved in the United States?

"Yes, yes we do," I say as I walk AGAIN back to the POP STANDARDS section, shift approxmiately one foot to my right, and point out the ENTIRE SHELF of Frank Sinatra.

The rest of the day I couldn't get the haunting image of this woman -- short, squat and music-happy -- wandering through the seven shelves of Pop Standards searching, hoping against hope, that there might be some CDs of Burt Bacharach somewhere...anywhere...where on earth could he be?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Grunt Too Much?


I've found an interesting phenomenon at Booth and Noble as of late:

it has been incredibly quiet.

I don't know if it's because a giant, new Booth and Noble moved in just a few minutes drive away - and people seem to like to drive an extra 30 minutes in order to enjoy a greater selection of books that they won't - or can't - actually read.

Perhaps it's because of the recent downturn in the economy, and people no longer wish to buy books.

(Actually, since most of our customers use Booth and Noble like a library/prostitute, this probably isn't the reason).

Maybe it's because people can no longer read. It would certainly explain why I have to tell people that the large sign that says "RESTROOM" is actually a "RESTROOM."

Whatever the reason, I do think that there are fewer people hauling their bulk around Booth and Noble, and although in theory this doesn't sound bad, in actuality it is quite disturbing.

Because the ones who do flop around the store and the determined, the needy, the horrific - the unwashed masses.

For instance, the other day in Booth and Noble's music department, an unwashed comes up to me. He says, "do you have any CDs of rain?"

I try to not stare at his tooth.

His one tooth.

"Rain? Sure, we have some sound effects CDs."

Then he starts: You know how in Return to Oz, the movie with the scary Wheelies, Tick-Tock the robot gets wound up and then moves in hyperspeed for awhile, until he settles down? This is what Unwashed did. He just started talking faster...and faster...and faster...

"You know why I want this CD?" [no pause for me to answer] "I've been listening to ocean sounds back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and I found that I CAN'T SLEEP THROUGH IT anymore." [oh yeah, and his voice modulates up and down, louder and softer too]. "So I thought I'd get some rain sounds because it reminds me of Nam and when I was there I could sleep through the rain no problem so I'm sure I can sleep through this..." [meanwhile, I've given him the CD and he has indicated that we should return to the cash register]. "So I said to my wife that I'd get a rain CD and here it is and it's only 10 dollars, that's a great deal for rain."

"Yup," I say.

"Anyway, do you know my Mom died when I was just a kid and now I watch Abbott and Costello and think about her do you have any new Abbott and Costello?"

I check the computer.

"No, nothing new," I say.

"It really made me sad when I saw Costello die on screen" [at this point, I'm like 'WHA???'] but I got through it because it was also so funny. It was a lot like Star Trek.

"WHA?" I think I actually verbalized it without the 'T' because I was so shocked.

"You know in Star Trek when the Enterprise got destroyed and I looked at it and I thought 'That's my childhood and it's going up in flames and its gone forever!' man, that was a good movie. I love Christopher Lloyd. Anyway, bye."

And he turns and walks into the sunset. I'm sure he's still talking somewhere, to someone...

Monday, August 4, 2008

Regular Grunts


Yesterday was a particularly slow day in the music department of Booth and Noble. Besides the few stragglers who wandered around for hours and then didn't buy anything (a common practice), there were only a few sales of any worth.

So, instead of describing some of the society's rejects that shop at Booth and Noble, I think I might describe some regulars that are in the store every Sunday (the day I work).

The first I shall call Carl. Carl calls Booth and Noble every Sunday and requests a CD - his taste, judging from his purchase history, ranges from the hardcore (Aimee Mann) to the more subdued (Aimee Mann). He also likes Jazz and showtunes.

Carl has the habit of bending very close to the CDs as they are splayed out on the rack and thumbing through them quickly. He also has a rather large rump. Imagine, if you will, a large-rumped beast bent over a the waist, eyes three inches from the surface of the CD, scanning as quickly as possible. He will scan through most of "his" sections (Pop Rock - M, Jazz, Shows, and sometimes Blues) as quickly as possible. I don't know what he's looking for, or even if he can see it when he scans that quickly.

Carl also ends every conversation with me with a high five. This started about 8 weeks ago. He holds up his hand in the air, and as much as it depresses me, I cannot leave a man hangin' like that. So I slap him five.

I hate to encourage this behavior, because I do not believe that people who do not know each other should give each other five. A firm handshake would also be ok, although shaking the hand of an employee who just sold you an overpriced CD is a tad odd. But the high five - really? Is this a new thing, a "fad" as the kids say? Is it possible that I've missed out on the new cultural greeting?

What an interesting experiment: go into various stores and high five the people that work there. Here're my predictions:

Wal-Mart: Total high five back, if the person who works there hasn't already given up on life.
Old Navy: Possible high five. Only high five if the headsets are not working.
Famous Footwear: No high five, due to the fact that their backs are completely curved over.
Target: High five with an added "Whoop! Oh-yeah" because everyone knows that people that work at Target are clinically insane.
Abercrombie and Fitch: No high five, and a withering look of disdain.

Carl does not, I imagine, work at any of these places. He might work in a Hobby Shop. Or maybe in a factory making toys for overprivileged children.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Grunt Update


You may remember reading a I post I wrote about a book signing I did a few weeks ago ( LINK .

In this post, I mentioned the book Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy, in which a friend and I each have written a chapter.

Yesterday, this friend (and a number of others) were all walking down the street and we happened to see one of the cast members walk into a bar.

As it happens, we also had a copy of BSG and Philosophy with us.

So we went inside, told this cast member how much we appreciated the show, and gave them a copy.

It was one of the best experiences of my life.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Grunt at War


In the desolate outreaches of civilization, where even the bravest men fear to travel, I, alone, stand tall. Others may quiver at the mere thought of venturing past the gates, but I, alone, stay. There are few that could survive its barren loneliness, its constant threat of danger, and the ever present odor of death. But I, I alone, can claim complete ownership of this fear.

Today I worked in the music department of Booth and Noble.

As with most days in the music department of Booth and Noble, I found myself with nothing to do. No customers to help, no time to start "projects," no alphabetizing to do.

And then the pair of them walked in.

The daughter, pudgy and with a hint of cowardice, slunk behind her brazenly obese mother, who stormed up to me like a giant baguette of slander and hate.

"How do you have your CDs?" she exclaims, ejecting spittle as if my face were on fire.

"Excuse me?" I wipe.

"How do you have your CDs?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"If I wanted to find a CD, how would I look for it?"

"Oh, well, they're first organized by genre..."

She interrupted: "What. The HELL. Is Genre?"

I looked at her face: this was not a joke. "Genre is a way of organizing things by what category you'd put them in; for instance, we have "pop rock," "classical," "folk..."

"Never mind that fancy talk. I need a new CD, because some BITCH" and at this point she glares at her daughter with eyes of pure fury "decided to take and LOSE my BEST CD."

"Um...ok...I'm sorry" I say to the daughter more than to the mother, "what CD was it?"

"The Greatest Hits of Boyz II Men."

I stifle a giggle.

"Uh, yeah, that's right here," I say and hand it to her. She grabs it from me as if it was made of solid gold. I swear she would have licked it if I weren't there.

Meanwhile, the daughter has slowly wandered away to one of our listening stations. These are the kiosks where a customer can scan a CD underneath the barcode reader and listen to samples from that CD. We often have people asking us if the CDs themselves are broken if the kiosk only plays a few seconds of a track; we have to assure them that the CDs are working fine and the listening station just plays samples.

I assume the daughter was playing something by the Beastie Boys or NWA, because if this woman were my mother, I'd have issues with society as well.

The mother grabs the CD from me and waddles over to the listening station the daughter is on. Now, she is actually closer to a different listening station, and there are 25 listening stations literally within twenty feet of her. But she wanders over to her daughter's and says:

"Get the hell off this, I need to listen to my CD." Never in my life have I been so desperate to listen to a CD THAT I ALREADY KNOW.

The daughter gingerly pulls off the headphones and hands them to her mother. The mother:

"THANK you, you CD loser. I know what I'm doing."

"Mom," the daughter says, "do you want me to help you?"

"Get your hands away from this CD. I don't want you losing THIS one as well."

At this point I'm about to cry, the daughter is worn down and the mother is trying to use the listening station, and failing. Instead of scanning the CD, she's hitting the top of the listening kiosk with it.

Then, the daughter helps her and she starts to happily dance to On Bended Knee .

She pays for the CD - no, she does not have a membership card - and as they're walking out she turns to the daughter and says:

"If you lose this CD, I'll lose you."

I still don't know what this means, but if I were that daughter, I'd want to be lost.

The daughter

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Grunt from the Other Side


Yesterday I had the unique experience of being a Grunt while not actually at work.

You see, I recently published a chapter in a book (Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy), along with a friend of mine, and together we contacted the Booth and Noble at which I am employed to inquire about having a book signing. She and I were both happy as kittens to be there.

Of course, we know that this is a rather esoteric title, and the number of books signed and sold will be fewer than the number of people who saw The Love Guru, but we thought it would be fun nevertheless. How often does one get to do a book signing?

What we did not realize was that my job as a Grunt would significantly impact the people that approached us for our signatures.

We sat in our chairs and waited for the hoards of nerdos to attack.

No nerdos approached.

Instead, the man who approached our table glaced at us through eyes glazed with spirits. His shirt - ripped and moldy - hung from his body like rotting flesh from a zombie. A tiny bit of spittle sat, unmoving, from his slackened lips. He limped over to us.

My co-signer and myself smiled. "Hello."

He didn't glace at me, but concentrated solely on her. He leered at her chest and thrust his hand at her to shake. She gingerly took it.

"I live in Livingston, Massachusetts," he said after a short pause.

"Oh," she said.

"Why do you sign your book with your left hand?" he asked, "if you shake hand with your right?"

She stared at him. "I don't sign books with my left hand," she replied. "I sign them with my right."

He fingered an open bag of candy in his pants pocket slowly, and with deliberate hunger.

There was the most pregnant of pauses while she shifted uncomfortably and he leered at her.

"Massachusetts," he began, "is a good place to live. I go to the Barnes and Noble there."

"Ok," she replied. "Would you like me to sign a copy of the book for you?"

He paused and looked down at her chest again.

Then he took a piece of candy out of his pocket and slowly started to suck on it. He turned and walked away without saying a word.

Not once during this interaction did he look at, or talk to, me.

There was silence for a moment while we watched him walk away.

"So..." I said. "I guess he's not a fan of the show."

We turned to face the store, our faces held high and our spirits undaunted. There were books to sign, and we had a job to do.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Grunt-capades


Things at Booth and Noble are not always as they seem. For instance, although I may act like I care why you are interested in obtaining a particular title, I can most assuredly assert:

I do not.

I do not care the history of why you might want the book. I don't care if someone from your family read it when they were little and you now want it. I don't care if you read it when you were a child and loved it. I don't care if your husband read about it in the New York Times and you think it would be a good Father's Day present.

I don't care. Honestly. It's not that I want to hurt your feelings - I really don't mean to.

But do I come to your work and blab to you why I really want my cable? Or my life history at McDonald's? Or why I prefer white chocolate Lattes as opposed to regular ol' mocha Lattes at StarBooth?

I do not. I do not give my life history because I assume that you have other things to worry about - like making my damn sandwich, or producing a delicious frothy beverage from your magic hot wand.

Um...ok, strike that last sentence from the record. I'm not sure I want anything frothy from your hot wand, Mr. StarBooth.

So, forgive me if I do not care why you want to return an item. Is it not enough that you want to return it? Do I need a history of your un-desire for this object?

Perhaps I speak too soon. For yesterday, a gentleman came in with an opened and listened-to audio book.

Booth and Noble's policy on such acts are as follows:

We will exchange an open audio book for the same item, assuming the original is damaged. We will only refund if the audio book is unopened.

This, I think we can all safely assume, is because an opened audio book is possibly a uploaded audio book, and thus is a used audio book. It's not like we can resell an opened audio book anyway - what, one of our customers is going to buy a cling-film wrapped audio book? Not our customers - they return items because "this page is slightly folded in one corner." Prissy to the extreme.

I ask the fellow what is wrong with the audio book.

"It doesn't work right," he unhelpfully explains.

"What doesn't work right?" I ask.

"It's too quiet."



"[pause]. Did you try turning up the volume?"

"I did part of the way, but it didn't help."

I look at the CD. I wonder if this is a problem with the CD, with the CD-player. I look at the man. And realize what the problem is:

he's wearing hearing aids.

"[sigh]. Let me call my manager."

And another satisfied customer of Booth and Noble gets his refund.

Perhaps he should return his hearing aids instead of all his CDs.

As I hastened to put the returned audio book back in the receiving area, I passed a young man wearing a teeshirt.

You know how lame it is to wear shirts with not-so-funny sexual innuendos on them?

For instance, "You must be ____ this tall to ride" or "your mom called and she wants me to come over and do her." (I may have made this last one up, but you get the idea).

You know what's lamer than that?

Wearing a HANDMADE sexually explicit tee-shirt.

In rather poor handwriting, written with a Sharpie marker, a young man had written on the upper portion of his right shoulder (evidently, he couldn't center it):

"I only date 10's, but I'll take 2 5's."

Ha! Ha! Ha! Just the thing to pick up women in a bookstore, no? I wonder why he decided to put that shirt on.

Actually, thinking about it...no, I don't really care.

Interesting story

Check out this interesting story from NPR about Book Returns, a process that is extremely wasteful. Turns out, when customers order books willy-nilly (a practice that Booth and Noble encourages), it costs the company an enormous amount of money and the environment an enormous amount of happiness to return, restock, and then resend the books around.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia


What follows is not strictly a treatise against the masses at Booth and Noble. It is, rather, the articulation of a literary debate that I have been warring for a number of years now. Although, it does touch on traditional Booth and Noble issues. I would appreciate input into the matter.

In 1950 C. S. Lewis published The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Each subsequent year, until the publication of The Last Battle, he published another in this famous series. I read the books when I was just a small lad (I read most of them in the bath, which is an image I'm sure you're all enjoying right now; me and my little Mr. Tumnus). I read them in that order: the publication order. For those who need a review, this order is as follows:

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (1951)
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
The Silver Chair (1953)
The Horse and His Boy (1954)
The Magician’s Nephew (1955)
The Last Battle (1956).

This is the order of the books in my set, as well.

In 1994, however, the American publishers of the book decided to change this order, ostensibly because Dr. Lewis preferred the new order. The order they changed it to follows not the publication date, but rather the chronological narrative structure of the series:

The Magician’s Nephew (1955)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
The Horse and His Boy (1954)
Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (1951)
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
The Silver Chair (1953)
The Last Battle (1956)

According to the Wikipedia article about this rearrangement, the books were reordered because of a single letter Dr. Lewis wrote to a child:

“I think I agree with your order [i.e. chronological] for reading the books more than with your mother’s. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn't think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last, but I found I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published.”

Dr. Lewis's stepson spearheaded the rearrangment, also according to Wikipedia.

Although this probably offers too great a glance into my psyche, and consequently makes people uncomfortable, I have very strong feelings about this change, from a literary standpoint, from an authorial standpoint, and from a cultural standpoint. I don't want to overstate my case, but would it be too much to think that this change is not the result of the whining of a child, but rather the cause of the increasing lack of sophisticated reading habits of children and adults alike?

Let me state my case, first, from a literary standpoint:L

There is no good reason to re-order the books; in fact, there are nothing but bad reasons. Although the events may become chronological, the telling of those events is crucial to the gradual unfolding of the narrative. This highlights an important distinction in narrative theory: the difference between what is told and how it is told. At times, this has been called the difference between the "story" and the "discourse," or the "what" and the "way," or (specifically to film) the "fabula" and the "sjuzhet."

But it's easier to think of examples. Star Wars has an enormous "universe" created with characters and events as part of the universe that aren't in any movies, right? So, although we learn about this "universe" from the movies, the movies only tell one part of the story. It is one discourse that describes a larger story out there.

Anyway, we can think about Narnia as a world that exists, and each of Lewis's books are only seven discourses that tell seven specific stories that take place in that world.

If we order the books in their publication order, we are highlighting the discourse of Narnia - the telling of the tale becomes paramount. To order them chronologically, however, is to underscore the importance of the story of Narnia. On the face of it, this wouldn't seem to be bad thing. Learning about the story is important, and I don't want to deny this.

But what this does is take away the experience of the narrative.

Yes, when we first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe we don't know why the wardrobe takes the children to Narnia. We don't know why there's a lamppost there. And, perhaps most magnificently, we discover Aslan along with the children, complete with the awe and stunning power they feel. Read as the first book in the series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe opens up questions about a world that don't get answered until the sixth book: The Magician's Nephew. When these questions are finally answered, when we learn, for instance, that the wardrobe was constructed from the wood of a tree grown from a seed taken from Narnia, we experience one of those once-in-a-lifetime shudders down our spines. When I first read that, it was a put-the-book-down-and-think moment. We get the same feeling in movies today: when we first watched Star Wars: Episode IV and learned that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father, it was a shocking moment. If we watched the prequels first, however, we already knew that. It loses it's shock value, it's excitement. Instead of surprise, we experience suspense.

Additionally, any foreshadowing put into the series of books by Lewis is lost in the re-ordering. In The Silver Chair the children are told a brief story about a boy named Shasta and a horse named Bree. This horse and boy are the protagonists in the book A Horse and His Boy. To hear this mention without having previously read A Horse and His Boy creates a nice surprise when we get to the book and learn what happened. We then remember back to The Silver Chair and understand the reference. Not only does this make the connections between the books more salient, but it also brings the reader into that connection: the reader must actively search for and connect the disparate parts. To have read A Horse and His Boy first, however, the reader then encounters the mention of the story in The Silver Chair and the connection is made for him/her. There is not the sense of discovery, or of activity, involved.

Other minor issues crop up. Why, as Wikipedia points out, would the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe have written: "None of the children knew who Aslan was, any more than you do," if we have experienced Aslan twice before?

In sum, to move the emphasis of the narrative from the discourse to the story is to make clear the complex, and interesting, narrative elements present in a disjointed and multi-linear narrative.

This brings me, conveniently, to my second point: the authorial standpoint.

Simply put, although it might seem that change the order of the books subverts Lewis's authorship, in reality, it actually reinforces the author's role in the construction of this narrative world.

Let me explain what I mean. We commonly think of authors as people who construct worlds that readers passively experience. The ultimate authority on a piece of literature is the person that thought it up, right? Orson Welles is the director of Citizen Kane, therefore, we can state that he is the author of that film, and the person completely in charge of the meaning, the subtleties, and the subtexts.

Yet, this is not the case. Authors may scribe the words, but it is the audience who interprets them. Shakespeare is wildly considered one of the greatest authors the West has produced. Yet, his plays are performed in a multitude of ways with a multitude of different interpretations. Who is to say what Shakespear intended? All we know is what we think of the play, the book, the film. The audience writes the text anew each time it is experienced.

The same is true of Narnia. I read it the first time when I was a child, and was taken by the powerful story of good vs. evil. When I read it as a college student, I was interested by the Christian allegory. Now when I read them, I see how the characters represent a bygone time period. Each time I read the books differently, and I understand different stories: some of which Lewis may have intended and some of which he may not have.

To read the books in the published order, I experience these different readings in an independent and unique manner. I might make connections between parts of stories - oh, this fight with a monster is different from that fight with a monster - that Lewis may or may not have intended. To read them in the re-ordered, chronological order, however, is to asert Lewis's reading of the story. Here, we are told by the publisher, is the correct order. This immediately limits our interpretation of the story by silencing our readings. No matter what you think about The Silver Chair, including the fable told about the horse and his boy in that story, in a re-ordered reading, it will necessarily be tempered by what Lewis (and the publishers) have deemed to go before it, namely A Horse and His Boy.

This prescribed reading severely limits the creativity and exploration that comes with reading a book full of wonder and mystery. Imagine reading Harry Potter and starting with the scene where Voldemort kills Harry's parents. There would be no mystery, no build-up of suspense for when we finally get the scene, towards the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Which, at long last, brings me to my final point: the re-ordering of The Chronicles of Narnia is detrimental from a cultural standpoint.

For all the talk recently about the complexity of new television programs (Lost is unique because of the flashbacks and flashforwards!), it is really an old trend. The first novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, is told in fragments and narrative flashbacks. To read a book in this way, or to watch a narratively complex television show, is to experience narrative in a new way. Steven Johnson's wonderful Everything Bad is Good for You details how this complexity is creating readers who are more mature, more intelligent, and more capable of handling complex tasks. Thinking multi-chronologically frees us from "thinking inside the box." We get used to thinking from many different angles, looking at problems from different viewpoints.

To re-order the Narnia books is to limit these different viewpoints. It's not enough that the customers at the bookstore ask to find the shortest books for their children to read (I usually recommend The Postmodern Condition, as it is only about 80 pages long, minus footnotes). They also have to make the books less complex and easier to understand. Why? Why do we want our novels simplistic and spoonfed? I'm not saying we have to give our children Gravity's Rainbow or anything, but let them experience mystery, suspense, connection and interconnectedness. Let them read the books in a way that doesn't explain everything right away.

Culturally, when we dumb down our literature, water down the media our children - and we ourselves - experience, we tell them (and us) that it's ok to be passive, that it's ok to read unquestioningly. We should read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and wonder why the hell a lamppost is in the middle of the forest. It gets us thinking - critically. When we finally discover why (Jardis threw a portion of an English Lamppost into Narnia as it was being created by Aslan), we have already thought about the importance of this. Perhaps we foresaw why the lamppost was there - perhaps we disagree with how Lewis actuated this appearance. Either way, we are thinking .

The literature we read, or have read to us, as children helps shape who we are, and what we become. I have no doubt that my own philosophy on life has come from the books I read when I was little: The Phantom Tollbooth, Ender's Game, The Three Investigators, Ramona the Pest series, etc. If we start to make these stories less complex, less narratively interesting, what are we doing to the children that have yet to read the stories? What are we telling them: yes, there was a different way to read these, but you'll find it easier to read it this way. Oh, and why not just skip the big words. And next time, find a shorter book to read.

It's a slippery slope.

So the next time you're in the children's department of a bookstore and you see the Narnia books on the shelf (and you'll see a lot of them), I urge you to rearrange them. I doubt you'll find them in the "published" order, because the publishers generally agree to put them in the revised order.

Or, at least, buy a set and read them in the published order, like I did when I was 10: one chapter at a time, in the bath.

Monday, June 2, 2008

You Think You Know What It Is To Be A Grunt?


My apologies for not posting in a few weeks - you see, I moved, and I have found myself both Internet-less and sleep-less for a number of nights. Plus, there are always new things to hang on the walls and new parts of the lease to break (pets? Why the hell not. No flags? Damn it, I'll hang the flag if I want to. Petty arson? You better believe it).

Anyway, so I haven't posted for awhile. But that doesn't mean that the customers at Booth and Noble have matured. No, if anything, like the hero of Martin Amis' Time's Arrow , these customers get less mature as they progress through time (although, to be fair, few of them are Nazi war criminals).

To whit:

It is summer reading time - the time when thousands of schooled children arrive in what, to the, must be a wondrous playground of imagination and joyous amusement: the bookstore. "Joy!" they think to themselves, "we get to read about mentally handicapped geniuses and strange men who hide things in trees -- all summer!"

No, the children are wonderful - full of bright vivacity and loveliness. It's the parents who mystify me.

Take, for example, the typical parent. Walking up to me while I'm near the children's department, she says:

"Do you have any books like this ," as she holds up a Matt Christopher sports book, "but for girls ?"

"Ma'am," I say, "girls can play sports too."

She looks at me like I just ate my own pants. "Not MY girl. She will like horses , isn't that right Betty?"

Betty, decked out in a baseball cap and a pair of cleats, nods her head, sadly holding onto a Pony Pals book.

Or, for example, the parents who says to their child: "you're not smart enough for this book," or, "this book is too long for you; let's find one a better length." These are the Oprah book club parents - the Secret generation, the Last Lecture devotees who like their literature like they like their literature like they like their politicians: white bred, old, and full of safe platitudes.

Of course, you often find those people that probably haven't given these things called "books" that much thought at all - the people, like this parent, who walks their daughter through the fiction section, trying to find a book:

"How on earth do they arrange these? It looks completely random!"

"Mom, it's by the author's name!"

"Oh, that makes sense."

"Yeah, duh."

"I always liked this alphabull organization. When it's alphabull, it's easy!"

But even some hardcore readers think they know what it's like to be a Grunt. It's a lot more than knowing the alphabutt. According to one gentleman who came through my cashwrap line the other day, it involves knowing things about money too:

He trailed a small daughter behind him like the detritus from sneeze. When she lagged too far behind, he would snort her back into his arms. When he arrived at the line, he said to her:

"When you give money to a clerk, you need to make sure it all faces the same way. This makes it easier for them to count!"

She nods her head; I begin to experience an emotion I haven't felt at Booth and Noble in a long time: understanding.

Then he takes six dollars, in ones, in his hand, crumples them all and throws them on the counter.

"Don't ever work retail, honey," he says to his daughter as he holds his hand out for his change.

Of course, it's not just the parents that know the best way to run things. Often, many customers of Booth and Noble believe that their way is the best way.

Booth and Noble, of course, has a cafe which serves many fine, overpriced, and much, much worse-for-you-than-you-think foods, some of which can be found at Starbooth. At seven o'clock in the evening, a woman comes up to the Information Kiosk and says to me:

"Excuse me. Is your manager here? I wish to complain about your cafe."

"Absolutely ma'am," I say. "Can I tell them what the complaint is?"

"Oh, it's not that big a deal," she says. "But. Your cafe is out of soup." She pauses. "Did you hear what I said? OUT OF SOUP." She looks at me. "THERE. WAS. NO. SOUP." My non-reaction starts to bug her. "It is dinner time. And YOU HAVE NO SOUP! What sort of establishment is this? I WANTED SOUP!" She starts to work herself up now: "I WANT TO TALK TO A MANAGER. THERE WAS NO SOUP! THIS IS UNCONSCIONABLE!"

Yes, it is. Unconscionable.

Let us not forget what "unconscionable" means. I quote from Merriam-Webster here:

"not guided or controlled by conscience" i.e., not answerable to "moral goodness" .

Let's list some other unconscionable things, shall we?

  • Torture

  • The Holocaust

  • Dog fighting

  • Not having "Chicken and Wild Rice" soup at Booth and Noble

Hey, guess what? We're right next door to a Panera, eh? They even have more than one type of soup at a time - imagine that, a choice! That's, what, super-conscionable?


Maybe that's what being a Grunt is all about. I now offer, for your consideration, a virtually unedited transcript of a phone call I received yesterday at Booth and Noble:

[ring ring]

"Hello, thank you for calling your local Booth and Noble. How can I help you?"

"Yes, do you have [trying hard to pronounce] Charles ... Dar...win... and the Voyager of the Beagle?"

"Ma'am, do you mean The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin? I'm pretty sure we have that, let me just go check on the shelf."

[I check on the "evolution" shelf and, lo and behold, we have it.]

"Ma'am, I've got it right here for you."

"Now, is that in hard cover? This is a gift for someone."

"No, I'm afraid we've only got it in paperback. I can order you hardcover copy, thoug - it would come in in 3-5 business days."

"Don't new books always come out in hardcover?"


"...You know, like Stephen King always has a hardcover?"

"...Ma'am, maybe we're not talking about the same book. I'm holding Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle in my hand."

"Yes, this is the book reviewed in this week's Wall Street Journal ."

"Well, ma'am, this book isn't new - it's over 150 years old. It came out in the middle of the 1800s."

"Yes, it's Darwin's Joyful Journey of Discovery."

"Yes, so would you like me to order the hardcover, or would you like the paperback?"

"I don't want either. I want the modern book."

"Ma'am, are you looking for a different book?"

"No, I want the one from the Wall Street Journal."

"...I'm holding Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle for you."

"NO! YOU AREN'T LISTENING TO ME!. The article says," and she starts to read:

Next year is Darwin year: the bicentennial of the great man's birth and the 150th anniversary of "The Origin of Species." The book is not the easiest of reads, but it is less of a trudge than Charles Darwin's four volumes on barnacles or his 15 works on topics as distinct as climbing plants and the formation of mold by earthworms. They tell, in plain and sometimes pedestrian prose, the tale of a life of observation and experiment that founded modern biology.

"The Voyage of the Beagle," in contrast, sings. Its language is that of a young man intoxicated by the tropics

"That's the one I want!"

"Ma'am, that sounds a lot like the book I've got in my hands."


"I don't know what you mean, ma'am. Perhaps you could help me understand by providing me with some more information."


Darwin looked back in his attempts to understand the present. He scarcely considered what the future might bring, for in his view evolution was so slow, and life so stable, that no great shifts were to be expected. A glance forward on the 200th anniversary of his birth shows how wrong he was. The world is already a far less interesting place than it was when he set forth on his circumnavigation and will soon become even less so: and no future explorer will ever write a book so full of the joy of unspoiled nature as is "The Voyage of the Beagle."

"I want this modern book."

"Ma'am, perhaps Darwin was just prescient?"


I tell her.


"Ok, ma'am. How about I hold this book for you and then you can come in and look at it, and if it's not what you're looking for, you don't have to buy it and we can order something else."

"That's more like it. Find that book I want. Is it in good condition?"

"Yes, ma'am, it hardly looks touched."

"HARDLY? I don't want any books that have been touched!"

"Ma'am? You're not going to find a book that's untouched."

"Put it down! Wrap it in a bag!"


"I want you to wrap it in a bag, you ass. Stop touching it!"

"Ok." I wrapped it in a bag. "Under what name can I hold it?"

"Excuse me?"

"What is your name?"

"Why would I give you my name?"

"So that we can give you the book when you come in."

"I'll come in later today. Won't you have it?"

"Yes, but we won't know it's for you unless we put your name on it."

"You're not getting my name."

"Ma'am, I don't know how to identify the book for you if you don't give me your name."

"I'm not giving you my name! I DON'T WANT TO BE MANHANDLED!"

"Ma'am, I won't manhandle you."

"You may write down Nancy. It is not my name, but I shall use it when I pick up the book."

"Alright." I write down Nancy, put the slip of paper around the book, which is wrapped in a bag, and put it behind the cash registers.

The ultimate punchline to this story is that "Nancy" came in later and didn't buy the book. I don't know why - I like to think that it's because too many people had touched the book.

Or maybe she was looking for a book for a girl, and she found a book for a boy instead.


Hey, a friend pointed out this site for other great customer stories - very funny: Not Always Right .