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Getting my cultural bearings at the bookstore...


So I was hanging around in Barnes & Noble on Broadway Boulevard the other day, wondering what ever happened to the obsolescence of the book, the end of paper, the twilight of literacy. The place is enormous and jammed with stock, and the cash registers were, if not ringing, chunking quietly mid-afternoon on a Monday. Other media may be hotter, but the book is nowhere near going out of style.

I can't say I really like mooning around in bookstores--like all shopping, it makes me thirsty, and my back starts hurting after 20 minutes--but I can't seem to help doing it. For better or worse, bookstores are where I get my cultural bearings, where I try to figure out what's up with America.

The Da Vinci Code, that's what. But there is some other stuff going on.

My excuse for going to B&N this time was to buy birthday presents for a 7-year-old: I got Tucsonan Chris Gall's gorgeous picture book Dear Fish; Owen & Mzee, the sweet true story of an orphaned hippo's friendship with a tortoise; and a sticker book about puppies. (If I'm lucky, I'll get to help with the stickers. I love sticker books.) The children's section, like the rest of the store--like American publishing--is a mishmash of the excellent, the exploitative and everything in between. You've got your Doctor DeSoto and your Treasure Island; at the other end, you've got Walter the Farting Dog, and in the middle lots of serviceable, by-the-numbers series--tons of them. From the looks of it, kids are reading. Right there on the premises, two little girls were curled up in one corner, so intent on their books that you could feel their concentration. (I found myself whispering to the clerk.)

Barnes & Noble may be a big, heartless corporate chain, but they let kids use their stores as libraries. That's nice.

If you want to know why half the world thinks the United States is hopelessly decadent, just check the biography section: Goldie Hawn's autobiography (I've always liked her, but what has she done to her face?); Paris Hilton's Confessions of an Heiress; Jenna Jameson's How to Make Love Like a Porn Star (um, fake it?); and something called The Last Days of Dead Celebrities, which you've got to admire for the absolute frankness of its appeal to (literally) morbid curiosity.

Of course, Leonardo is everywhere--counted six titles in the art section alone. He never goes out of style, but this spring, he's positively ubiquitous thanks to the Code. (I haven't read the book, and won't buy the calendar, game or travel journal, and I'm not happy about it. Somebody loaned me the book, and I was all excited. Sadly, I could not hack Dan Brown's prose: "The albino drew a pistol from his coat and aimed the long silencer through the bars, directly at the curator. 'You should not have run.'" We all have our limits, and a silencer-wielding albino turns out to be one of mine.)

And in the opposite corner: Christian fiction, which I was surprised to find occupying two whole groups of shelves in the religion section. (Here believing browsers can be safe from even the sight of the polluting secular competition.) Spawned, I guess, by the success of the Left Behind series ("Over 60,000,000 copies sold"), Baptist lit has rapidly encompassed all genres--except erotica, naturally--but seems to be dominated by historical romance. This seems inevitable, given the nostalgia of the born-again for a better, simpler time, and the essential optimism of the fundamentalist worldview: Can a truly Christian story ever have a sad ending? Reduce to the lowest common denominator, and you get: Girl in gingham falls for Godless stud, does not have sex, brings her strong-jawed man to Jesus, marries him. The End. The back covers feature thickets of blurbs from preachers and brightly lit studio portraits of the authors, beaming older ladies whose appearances seem designed to allay any lingering suspicion that novels--packs of lies, let's face it--are intrinsically corrupting. You need only see their honest faces and tidy hairdos to know that the volume you hold is good as a sermon. Why, you should buy it.

History's booming, too. As people get older, they often become interested in the past, and we all know what's happening to the boomers. For their aging delectation, there's micro-history (The History of the Zippo Lighter), crap history (Sleeping With the Queen), the usual half-dozen JFK picture-books, and multiple variations on [Blank]: The [Blank]That Changed the World. Curiously, there's also a resurgence of the hard-core stuff. Penguin Classics has brought out a nicely done series of the ancient historians--not just rock stars like Plutarch and Thucydides, but Suetonius and Polybius, for godsake. Three competing editions of Herodotus' Histories are currently duking it out on the ancient shelf.

Who knew Herodotus would be selling in 2006? Not right alongside Paris Hilton, it's true, but still under the same big roof.

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