My local bookstore is a pretty good one—as book stores go. It regularly brings in authors (both renowned and good). Its reader recommendations are generally excellent. It purveys only a minimum of kitsch (greeting cards and such). Its shelves are well stocked… Well, yes. And yet no: The bookstore has succumbed to the now well-entrenched Simula-life genre—by which I mean the kind of how-to books designed to aid the curious, the clueless, or the merely incomplete in how to achieve spiritual peace, emotional balance, world class business acumen, an amazing culinary sense… (One could go on.)
Now, in one sense, this is really great. The books testify to a certain native curiousity and an admirable American drive at self-betterment. At the same time, these how-to books seem like—this is going to sound really harsh here—instruction manuals for remedial living. It’s as if—and sadly, maybe this is right—without these books about how to get to X or Y, our culture had failed to equip us for knowing how to live. It’s like the travel guide approach to human life. The Michelin guide to relationships. The complete AAA Trip Tik (with points of interest) for young couples or for the borderline middle-aged.
I know, I know—this is awfully harsh on my part. And I kind of know I’m wrong here. I must be in a bad mood. I don’t know why. I just got back from Paris. Maybe that’s it. I went to lots of cafes (with my laptop to finish a talk I had to give). The Parisians had no laptops in the cafes. They were sipping those intensely strong little espressos, talking in twos and fours and fives. At the outside tables (they braved the cold) they smoked their Gitanes and their Gauloises. O.K.–I know, you shouldn’t romanticize an entire culture on the basis of cigarette brands and laptops absent from boulevard cafes.
Still, there’s my bookstore back home, with all these instruction manual books for healthy, happy, tranquil, rewarding, successful living. It occurs to me that the healthy living books probably prescribe happiness…. The happiness books probably prescribe tranquility…. The tranquility books probably… You get the idea. Everything is a means to something else. (The “how to use time wisely books” probably confirm the point.)
It occurs to me that instead of buying all these books, one could just hire a stunt person to live one’s life. They could report back: “Yep, you broke a six-minute mile this morning and yesterday you learned to make this amazing Thai appetizer!” It also occurs to me, one could just buy an entire collection of these books, put them end to end in a big bookshelf. Tell friends about it: “Yep, could have gone through a rough patch up there—yeah on the third shelf from the top on the right side. Bought the book instead.”
Harsh, man. Harsh.