Last weekend I went to Disney with my in-laws and ended up going on several shopping sprees, one of which was a serendipitous pop into a book store in an outlet mall on the way from a leather goods store that smelled like Bonanza to the Nike outlet (which, incidentally, doesn’t smell like Bonanza at all).
The moment I stepped in the book store I was accosted by a man sitting at a small white folding table, selling books. I stopped and talked to him and learned that he wasn’t a worker but a writer doing a book-signing.
He bragged on himself and I bought the book. He probably thought he had effectively convinced me of his quality because I bought it, and because his entire pitch was self-focused, but I bought it despite everything he’d said to me. I bought it because it was there, because he was there, and because it was my Grand Gesture. But you should have seen the look on my wife’s face as she trailed off.
I mean this guy was weird, and I guess I can see how that would be off-putting, but I understand him and I pity him. He is a writer; he’s alone most of the day and has no co-workers or authority structure, so he is not only bad at daily, consistent human interaction, but he’s also naive about the way the world works. He is haunted by the bottom line, something he probably hates to talk about. But the fact is this: he will only survive if he moves copies of that book of poetry, and he can only do that by obeying the laws and rules of commerce, which all means that he is a salesman, whether he wants to be a or not, and that is why I pity him. Because I know writers, and I guarantee you he hates the idea of being a salesman. Which is kind of why I stopped to talk to him.
He was weird, but he GETS to be weird and that ADDS to his whole ethos. He GETS to be anti-salesman, and that, itself, is his sales pitch. And it probably works for him. I can’t do that; I have to abide by normal rules of commerce and human interaction to make a living.
This is why I wanted to buy his book. Curiosity. What is it like to GET to be that odd and how does that shape your view of the world? I am pretty confident I can judge it pretty quickly according to my values, but I want to try, to accept the challenge, and, crazy of all, to come away impressed, changed in some way.
Which is why the other reason I wanted to buy it: this is a Grand Gesture for me. I am literarily and artistically much more practical in this season of my life. Which means I don’t get all excited about words on a page, no matter how brilliant, because they are still just words on a page. But I also realize that words are what change the world, so I want to get back into it. This is also a quest. Will I make it through these poems unscathed, or will that thing he GETS rub off on me in form even if not substance? Will I fall in love with poetry again?
Once he took a breath from all his awards and recognition, I learned that this particular book of poetry was his best, and it was $17.95, and I didn’t check to see if it was his newest or most expensive, but it crossed my mind to. I just didn’t care. Like the priest in Les Miserables, I had learned that with that $17.95, I was purchasing my soul from the purgatory of an illiterate life.
It doesn’t matter if it is good poetry or not; I almost hope it is not. What matters personally is that I put my money where my mouth is and made the Grand Gesture, and what matters literarily is that the author is earnest. I don’t have to like it to get something from it because it is the act of reading and connecting and forming an opinion about literature that is literature itself. Literature is not discovering the hierarchy of writers who have perfectly put words together; it is the process of minds using their creativity and vision and community to struggle to put this infinite messy life into words. Struggle to see. And sure, I had no doubt that I would fundamentally disagree with his view of the world, but that did not temper my excitement.
He probably only sold a few copies that day. I only saw a few lying beside his chair. And as he boasted, and as I paid, and as I registered a slight smirk on his face, I wondered if he thought I’d been had. Well yes, as a matter of fact, I guess I had been had, but so had he. I left with passion for literature and a Grand Gesture to hold me accountable. I bet you he left with frustration at how few copies he’d sold.