Thursday, May 03, 2007

Killing the Wicked Witch of the West...

"I Don't Think We're In Kansas Anymore, Todo", Part 2

...After I finally make my sci-fi pick, I cautiously, very cautiously approach the graphic novel section. The first thing I see are shelves and shelves of manga. Now. I’ve read manga before - I spent a year in Japan. How could I not? - so I know this isn’t what I want. I am, by all means, no expert but I think manga is the paperback serial version of American comic books. I want to read a graphic novel, which I am told is something altogether different from comics. So I wander the aisles until I finally spot a single lonely bottom shelf dedicated to graphic novels.

Again, I’m no expert, but even I know that this bookstore’s graphic novel is sadly lacking. But I persevere and come up with...nothing. I find absolutely nothing on that single shelf of novels which strikes my fancy. This isn’t because I’m feeling repelled or distressed. It’s because I know I can do much better. There is V for Vendetta, but I’ve seen the movie; there’s also A History of Violence but - yep, I’ve seen that too, and there’s also 300 but - well, you know. So reluctantly I wander away from the graphic novel section empty-handed with some vague idea that I’ll surf Amazon for something interesting later.

I get half-way to the self-help section (god, help me) before I remember...wait...wait.. ...I got it! - a comic excerpt I read in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006 a few months back! Naturally I can’t remember the guy’s name but, hey I haven’t spent half of my life in bookstores and libraries without learning how to do a little stack investigation. So, after I’ve found the The Best American Nonrequired Reading on the shelf, I quickly skim its contents and there it is: Guy Delisle, author of Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. Now that’s what I want. Excited, I hop/run back over to the graphic novel section and...they don’t have it. I mark it down in my book to buy/order another day. July pick, down. Onwards to the self-help section.

For me, walking anywhere near this section is like walking toward a force field of opposite attraction. And these little voices in my head are whispering: Come on, you don’t want to do this. You don’t need to do this. Stop! Stop now before it’s too late!!! I quiet them - see, no pop psychology needed - ignore the twisting in my gut, and try really, really hard to wipe the cynical sneer from my face before I enter the SELF-HELP SECTION. What is it about this section that makes me so suspicious? Maybe it’s this: In next week’s issue of The New Yorker (Dana Goodyear’s "The Magus"), Mario Maestri says on Paulo Coelho:

Coelho’s narratives and self-help books have the same fundamental effect: of anesthetizing the alienated consciousness through the consoling reaffirmation of conventions and prevailing prejudices. Fascinated by his discoveries, the Coelhist reader explores the familiar, breaks down doors already open, and gets mired in sentimental, tranquilizing, self-centered, conformist, and spellbinding visions of the world that imprisons him. When he finishes a book, he wants another one that will be different but absolutely the same...yuppie esoteric narrative.

I’ve never read Coelho, including his ubiquitous novel The Alchemist, so I can’t comment how true Maestri’s comments are, but he does seem to get at how I feel toward all self-help novels. That, and I think a lot of self-help authors are out to make a quick buck. Which is cynical - yes, even I know that - so here I am standing in the self-help section against every skeptical bone in my body and I pull out the first book I lay hands on... ... How to Get a Rich Man: The Princess Formula by Donna Spangler? Come on, SELF-HELP, you’re not helping your case here. I flip through it, hoping against hope that this is joke. A self-help comic maybe? But no, Ms. Spagler is very serious with tips like: Learn How to Play Tennis. Why? Well, because rich men like women who know how to play tennis. Duh.

I thought self-help novels were about spiritual enlightenment and recovering from grief-stricken times, which - despite my sneering and suspicion - I can respect. There is no way, however, I can respect a book which encourages women to become - I don’t care how you put it - gold-diggers. Is this the spiritual enlightenment we’re seeking these days? The nirvana of platinum engagement rings, Minolo Blaniks, and Gucci bags bought with someone else’s credit card? But, I admit, I almost buy it. Not because I expect to learn anything but because, at the very least, I’m guaranteed to have rip-roaring time snickering at its superficiality for a month.

But that would be cheating I think. The point is to challenge myself, not reaffirm my suppositions, and reading How to Get a Rich Man will do exactly that. Following the most boring ten minutes I’ve ever spent browsing a bookstore - is it me, or is the main advise in every self-help book: “Think positive and all the joys of the world will come your way!”? - I give up. That's right. I give up and pick the most obvious pick: The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. I couldn’t give a flying tornado for what the “secret” is. In fact, I bet I know it already - “Think positive and all the joys of the world will come your way!” - but when the time comes I’ll try to be open-minded. I really will. I promise. August pick, down.

Legs aching, eyes burning, my head making it’s own tribal music, I stumble over to the US History section (another area of the bookstore which I find to be a roller-coaster of exciting fun); by this time, my patience meter has hit ‘E’. It’s all I can do to keep from running to the best-seller table, picking out the nicest cover and making an escape. But I can do better than that. Biographies on John Adams, George Washington - nope, nope, not interested. Books on the Civil War - nope, not interested. On the Dust Bowl? Sorry. Not interested. On World War I? World War II? Yeah, that would be - no, not interested. But suddenly, the clouds part, the sun shines, and the angels sing praise because there, situated perfectly in the American history section is The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth Century America by Nigel Cliff, the very same book I promised to buy a few weeks back. This smacks of cheating - getting a book I planned to get anyway. But, I rationalize, nowhere in the challenge does it say I can’t enjoy myself. And if any book could challenge my associating American history with boredom it’s The Shakespeare Riots. So, Cliff it is. September pick, down.

It is now May 3rd. I’ve landed in the country of the Muchkins, killed the Wicked Witch of the West, and had ruby slippers placed onto my feet. Now I’m on my way to see the Wizard of Oz, strolling down the Yellow Brick Road, wondering at the amazing and unusual people I’ll meet along the way. Here's hoping I don't get eaten.