I love bookstores. My love is a simple one. Uncomplicated. There is no bookstore that does not deserve one visit. The thought is in my heart and there is no reason for it. In the small hours of the night when every one is shuttered the world seems colder, sadder and tenuous. Unbalanced. I trace some of these thoughts, more like detritus, to the common thread of my childhood. There were sadder things, certainly. There were events that carried more weight and finality. But nothing competed with the dull ache of not being able to find a good book, in a store, before I had to leave. Before it closed. Such a busy life I led, even as a child, but somehow my departures, as I turn the memories over, are without purpose. I look for a reason. There is none or at least I cannot remember. I like to think there was a reason for all those early departures. When I left I knew the store would close. The world would be a little quieter and yet, without all the hushed tones floating in the air above the stacks, louder. Louder but with less purpose, with less meaning.
In the Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges writes of the Wufniks. “There are on earth, and always were, thirty-six righteous men whose mission is to justify the world before God. They are the Lamed Wufniks. They do not know each other and are very poor. If a man comes to the knowledge that he is a Lamed Wufnik, he immediately dies and somebody else, perhaps in another part of the world, takes his place. Lamed Wufniks are, without knowing it, the secret pillars of the universe. Were it not for them, God would annihilate the whole of mankind. Unawares, they are our saviors.” There is no doubt in my mind that the Wufnikes, as a general rule, are the operators of small bookstores. Independent ones, perhaps, but keeping in line with the canon (“they… are very poor”) the bookstores are not very popular. They are not necessarily well-maintained. I have my own evaluation rubric for a good bookstore. Coincidentally it more or less mimics my rubric for Mexican resturants but that’s a story for another time, dear reader. Good bookstores only have so much energy: they must spend this amount of energy one three things. The first is order. The second is selection. The third is price. In this sense my grading evokes ideas of virtually anything else: quality, quantity, price but adapted for book-buying. To that I say mea culpa. You got me. I still find it useful. The best bookkeepers of these stores are our saviors.
Recently I came upon a Yelp review that praised, highly, a independent bookstore. It was, a review gleefully declared, ‘Feminist.’ Capital ‘F.’ My attention confided to me: ‘I am piqued.’ I am a very good listener when I want to be so I went.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, or at the conclusion of the eighteenth, certain adjectives of Saxon or Scottish origin (eerie, uncanny, weird) came into circulation in the English language, serving to define those places or things that vaguely inspire horror. Such adjectives, note well dear reader, correspond to a romantic concept of landscape. German has unheimlich. Spanish siniestro.
We can see these words in application. Los Angeles has the Santa Ana winds, immortalized in Joan Didion’s essay “Los Angeles Notebook.” The foen wind of Austria and Switzerland. The mistral of France. The Mediterranean sirocco. “Whenever and wherever a foehn blows, doctors hear about headaches and nausea and allergies, about “neverousness,” about depression.”
The store was disquieting. And not merely because of what I saw. That some aspects of feminism are a secular religion seems self-evident. But just which religion is it tracking? We have traditional Christian eschatology: the fall of man, the Messiah, his suffering and humanity’s vicarious redemption, the salvation, the rise and so on. But I think this is a false connection. It is an intellectual cul-de-sac because it is tracking Marx–it is a secular religion tracking yet another secular religion.
Not just any Marx, mind you. Karl Marx before 1845. “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.” A Marx who was busily creating a diffuse language accessible to students that were, in the words of British historian Tony Judt, “serviceable for new, substitute revolutionary categories–women, gays, students themselves and so on. Such persons could be readily inserted into the narrative despite having no organic link to the blue-collar proletariat.” The Marx of post-1845 is a tad too concrete, a tad too unitary for the world of postcollegiate internet where no division is too small for hyphenation.
Capital-F Feminism serves a single class. Lawyers, professors, upper-middle class university students (I repeat myself) and a few other highly paid professionals within the Western world. Because Feminism does not begin with simple economic necessities–maternity leave, for one, but also child care–it is a curious mix of platitudes and upper-middle class morality. Two, consenting but drunk adults engage in sexual activity. One of them, or both of them, ‘raped’ the other. Or themselves. No one can really tell what, or who, raped who yet there is always one lesson to pull from it: American Puritanism has and will always be a part of middle-class morality. Can you imagine anything more saddening than a single-mother of two balancing a dead end job as part of America’s service economy, praying to God that immigration services will release her husband from his perpetual detention at one of their holding facilities, spending a small fraction of her day reading up on the current obsession with how universities’ handle sexual assaults (a Title 11 requirement and ostensibly a major victory for Feminism)? How futile.
This should not be taken as a criticism of Feminism or even feminism. American social thought is delightful. It avoids economic divisions, especially when these divisions enter the social realm, because Americans find the discussion uncomfortable. A discussion about other, more usable divisions is much more palatable to the national palate. If you want to make an old-fashioned point, you could say this: the fact that so many feminists were themselves drawn from the upper-middle class–where the only disadvantage they suffered was precisely that of being female, often no more than a marginal handicap–explains their inability to see that there was a large class of person for whom being female was by no means the greatest of their challenges and may have been one of their few advantages.
I’m reminded of an article I read from the Baffler, a fun little read with some truly talented women and men.
Beyond psychic anxieties and methodological failures, though, lies something more—and worse. What if men have been betrayed by their own vanguard, by the very feminist-inspired women that Dell hoped would be the force to spring men from their imprisonment in a capitalist system? What if American feminism, at least as it’s been reconstituted in the American popular imagination, has taken as its rallying cry the call to join men in their prison.
The hot “feminist” books of the last decade are get-ahead-gals management texts—most famously, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which joined a bumper crop of other like-minded entreaties to elbow your way into the executive suite: Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes That Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers; Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman: What Men Know About Success that Women Need to Learn; The Go-Getter Girl’s Guide: Get What You Want in Work and Life (and Look Great While You’re at It). Or they are celebrations of women’s coming superiority in the new “flexible” and “global” job market—most recently, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women and The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family—in which exultations over women’s supposedly new “earning power” slop over into sly putdowns of those sad-sack men who failed to retool themselves for the brave new economy.
The fragmentation of feminism reflects American society today. I can’t blame feminism, or anyone, for that. Old, revolutionary feminism does and should. Feminism was supposed to be a solution, or perhaps an alternative. Today it is merely another pool for the American polity, modern day Narcissus, to look back on himself. Forced to choose between these positions, those who believe in critical thought as an indispensable precondition of social or political progress might well renounce the very possibility of progress and side with the conservatives, who at least recognize intellectual deterioration when they see it and do not attempt to disguise it as liberation because if there was liberation at the book store I’d rather have chains.
The book store, as a spectacle or piece of theater, was excellent. Unironic ‘herstory’ here, ‘in case of black’ over there and in the back ”in case of bisexual.’ A waterfall of wonderful trigger warnings, trigger warnings for trigger warnings–everything any solidly middle-class member of America’s civic life could want. For some the experience provided by the bookstore was liberating. That is what made it so disquieting. Underneath the cold ice of performance there was only chilly black water. As a bookstore, much less an actual act of liberation, it was terrible. Inauthentic. There was one celebration masquerading as a celebration of diversity. It was a celebration of self. If you want to read about yourself, the store all but said, come here. Read about how unique you are. How oppressive those mild stumbling blocks are to success in your world without need or poverty.
Bookstores, the really best ones, are challenging. They present a physical obstacle and a intellectual one. Not only must you find a book that calls to you but the voice is obscured by a dozen others. A walk through a bookstore operated by a true Lamed Wufnik is a scattered mess. A rigorous exchange between what you know, what they are and the common ground in the middle. But here there was only one purpose: go to the section where you belong, where you’ll be reassured that you are perfect–correctable–and that the world needs to change. But not too much change. As long as a few more women happened to control the reigns of economic inequality, as long as a few more women are paid inadequately then the world will be better. Ipso facto. If there are some in the world who are actually the working class, well, they must accept that exact dispirited moment when there seemed no one at all willing to play the proletariat and the invention of women as a “class.” The blue-collar who were insufficiently motivated have already missed their chance.
There was weekly meetings where women came together to ‘raise their consciousness.’ Some fliers detailed at what was happening. A sentence comes to mind: “There is a Chinese revolutionary practice known as ‘speaking bitterness.’ They purged and regrouped and purged again, worried out one another’s errors and deviations;” the “minor aggression” here, the “careerism” there. Is there nothing more detached than a group of people worried about whether they are making too much money or not making enough? That even they cannot help but admit that modern life only presents them with ‘minor’ agrees ions? Where the choice is not in the actual wads of cash being eagerly stored away, the prosperity of winning the lottery of life, to be brought out for a new wicker chair produced in a factory where workers throw themselves off the roof in a last desperate plea for recognition from a world that also contains this bookstore. Perception has become reality. When economics becomes a game of optics there is no doubt in my mind that erasure of the world, a large part of it, has already occurred.
“To read even desultorily in this literature was to recognize instantly a certain dolorous phantasm, an imagined Everywoman with whom the authors seemed to identify all too entirely. This ubiquitous construct was everyone’s victim but her own. She was persecuted even by her primary care physician, who made her beg in vain for contraceptives. She particularly needed contraceptives because she was raped on every date, raped by her husband, and raped finally on the abortionist’s table.”
Never before have the mild stumbling blocks faced by the middle-class been so immortalized. Just imagine it: your personal primary physician, who you have paid so much to see and make an appointment with, is not immediately acquiescing to your demands. The nerve of tradespeople who have forgotten their place. That this person happened to fit into a few different molds: a bit darker here, a little more pansexual over there, heightened rather than obscured the typicality and sameness.
Was there some sort of irony in the ponderous, heavy door that all but begged for someone with well-developed upper body strength to bully it around? A wink from the world, and even the store itself, that reality was eager to draw out incongruity? I do not know but the door was damn heavy.
And with that I am off. A Borgesian series that comes back to the night sessions, plomped on a chair clutching a pre-loved book.