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, 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 ... 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 .