What happens to serendipity in a world without bookstores?

Remaindered reads - this is a good one. Arts and Entertainments by Christopher Beha is a sendup of the highly scripted world of reality TV #books #reading #fiction

What happens to serendipity in a world without bookstores?

The Barnes and Noble in Bethesda is closing. The last of the great literary superstores, it anchors downtown Bethesda, MD, providing a focus to the community and a convenient rest stop on the Capital Crescent Trail.

Books used to be big business. Downtown DC had several stores much like the leftover Barnes and Noble, from the sprawling Borders on L Street to the bustling Waldenbooks in Union Station. All gone now.

The margins are better in clothing. Most of the book stores now sell cheap frocks from China.

I’ll miss shopping at Barnes and Noble for the same reason that I miss reading the newspaper – serendipity. Online shopping is task-oriented – you know what you want and you search for it. Browsing in a good bookstore is about exploration. It’s about luck. It’s about stumbling upon the right book at the right time.

I had a gift card with $5 left on it. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I ended up in the remaindered section of the Bethesda Barnes and Noble, searching through the stacks of marked-down books at the front of the store.

I didn’t care for the cover of Arts & Entertainments but read the blurbs and the first couple pages and was sold. At $4.98.

This funny New York novel by Christopher Beha asks, “How real is reality TV?” The answer: not very. Like with scripted programs, reality characters have arcs – narratives imposed upon them by producers. We like pantomime villains and high drama so that’s what reality TV gives us, whether it’s true or not.

And once you join the reality world, it’s impossible to get out, for you become addicted to fame and money. The only escape is death and, even then, your demise will be used to anchor another story, another narrative arc, another turn of the wheel, your complex existence reduced to a single stereotype, whether that’s hero or heel.

I was thinking of doing a blog series on remaindered books, panning for gold among these leftover titles.

But, like the last Barnes and Noble, even these remnants of the publishing industry are soon to be no more.

People still read – 73% of adults read a book in the last year, most of them in print.

Bethesda will survive the loss of Barnes and Noble. In cities like Washington, we have other options, independent booksellers like Kramerbooks.

But, in most of the country, Barnes and Noble was the only bookstore in town. And it did more than just sell books, too, but provided a safe space for reading groups, online dates and Craigslist transactions. It’s a loss to the community.

No more will readers have the experience of aimless browsing, of searching through stacks of discounted books looking for something you can’t describe until you pull a black comedy out of the pile. The end of Barnes and Noble means the end of serendipity.

In a country enthralled by reality TV, Barnes and Noble is no longer needed. But what about all those remaindered books? Where will they go? To the great pulp mill, destined for recycling as flimsy wrapping paper, their contents unread.

A War We Must Win: The USA vs Trump

greetings comrades glory
Greetings, Comrades. Glory!

There was a moment during a recent demonstration. A crowd had gathered outside the White House to protest immigration policy. Standing in front of a chain-link fence, a young Honduran woman described fleeing the violence in her country. She loved America for saving the lives of her children. People applauded, including a 94-year old Holocaust survivor who had insisted on attending the demonstration. Stooped over, her eyes flickered with life.

At the edge of the crowd, a middle-aged couple approached, the female half in a Make America Great Again hat. They saw the demonstrators protesting Trump’s treatment of refugees. The woman snuck into the crowd and made a mocking peace sign so that her husband could get a picture. They laughed.

My friend Pippa is conducting dinners with Trump supporters. She feels that if only we all knew each other a little better, it would be easier to get along. Results have been disappointing. Breaking bread doesn’t change political opinions.

I was not a political person until this year. Living in DC, I had the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill. I declined, feeling it to be a waste of time, disliking the passion people brought to even the simplest of issues. A pragmatist at heart, I voted for Republicans and Democrats, always seeking the candidate who would do the least harm.

But Trump is different, representing an assault on democratic institutions, something that every American should oppose. Evidence is growing that he colluded with Russia, part of a Putin strategy to use fake news and select leaking to influence the 2016 election. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Secretary General of NATO, warned:

“It is Russia’s aim to undermine the political cohesion in Western institutions.”

Putin seeks is to divide and weaken the West, to discredit democracy itself and restore the old Soviet Union. He wants to end the Pax Americana that has kept the world free of global wars for more seventy years. It’s a dangerous moment, as America wavers, the prospect of a new wave of conflict on the horizon. A global war would mean the end of the connected world that we know and enjoy.

Encouraging these end times is a selfish con man, Donald Trump, a dupe who is willing to go along with Putin’s schemes and court international disorder if it will benefit his family of grifters.

Trump’s supporters have told me that he can do whatever he wants, because he is the President. They’re willing to throw away the Constitution and their own hard-won democratic rights in pursuit of vengeance against people like me. “We suffered under Obama. Now it’s your turn,” I’m told.

After the election, I was ambivalent. I even wrote an award-winning short story about my mixed feelings, Victory Party, in which a waiter receives the election news with something approaching happiness.

But since Trump’s American Carnage speech (“That was some weird shit,” George W. Bush), it’s clear what he and his supporters want: revenge. They don’t want to build a new America; they want to punish America and are willing to work with the Russians to do so.

“Since when are you a liberal?” a friend of mine jokingly asked me. I’m liberal in the classical sense, as someone who believes in free speech and free markets. I believe in the West, in freedom from tyrants under a system where every person is equal before the law. That marks me as an enemy of the state, at least this state, for Trump and his supporters seek to turn this country into a soft dictatorship, Putin light, where an autocrat makes all the decisions, without the pesky impediments of the Constitution.

“There was a very serious effort made by Mr. Putin and his government, his organization, to interfere in major ways with our basic, fundamental democratic processes. In some quarters that would be considered an act of war.”

Who said that? Dick Cheney.

The war began last year, when Trump’s entourage colluded with Russia to subvert the election. It’s a war against democracy itself – and one that we weren’t even aware that we were fighting until recently.

No amount of gentle conversations around a candle-lit dinner table will budge the hate and envy in the hearts of Trump partisans. Sorry, Pippa! No accommodation is possible with people who would collaborate with a foreign power to snuff out democracy in America.

Trump and his Russian backers declared war on America during the last election. It’s a war that will be fought in the streets, courts, legislatures and media. The majority of the country voted against Trump. We did not choose this war. But it’s one that we must win.

Fear and Loathing in Washington, DC

 

white-house-construction

Washington, DC, has a raw, unfinished quality to it. The Presidential reviewing stand is still up on Pennsylvania Avenue, as the National Park Service disassembles it with their usual lethargy. The site is surrounded by chain link fences, adding to the type and variety of barriers that encircle the White House – yellow caution tape, red wooden snow fences, concrete bollards, decorative planters, metal car barriers that pop up and, of course, the historic wrought iron fence that has proven to be so easy to climb.

Behind these walls, a couple of orange-hatted construction workers toil at disassembling the reviewing stand by hand, while observed by a platoon of heavily armed Secret Service agents. Work isn’t expected to be completed until March.

On the other side of the White House is the empty spire of the Washington Monument. It’s closed until Spring 2019, due to an elevator problem. We’ve fought and won wars in less time. It’s a symbol of America but is not a priority to Congress, who is more interested in taking things apart than fixing them.

Looking out on this tableau of dysfunction is Donald Trump. Brooding, tweeting, as he wanders the White House in a bathrobe. He doesn’t think to right the broken things around him. Instead, he conspires to break more things, appointing a parade of loathsome incompetents to high office – Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Betsy DeVos.

I wrote a novel called Don’t Mess Up My Block, the thesis of which is that you have to fake it until you make it. In this satire of a self-help book, a loser reinvents himself as a management consultant, despite having no qualifications or experience. With the blind confidence of a conman, he goes from Dinkytown obscurity to DC success.

Even with my fevered literary imagination, I never thought a conman could take over the federal government.

What this city needs is a good snowstorm. Today, it’s 65 degrees. I’m in a coffee shop by the White House. The air-conditioning is on. Outside, tourists walk by in shorts and t-shirts.

We need a blizzard, something to remind lawmakers of the power of Mother Nature to silence them all. A storm that shuts the city down for a week (like the one that occurred last year) might instill some humility in these cruel powerbrokers.

But that’s not going to happen. Winter is nearly over.

Rescue is not coming. “At some point, the adults will step in,” I assured myself during the election. Party elders. The media. The wisdom of the American people. Someone would save us.

We’re going to have to save ourselves. Humor is a good start. The parody of Sean Spicer by Melissa McCarthy did more to shape the public view of the administration than hours of talking heads on CNN, revealing the Trump regime’s bullying and incompetence.

Humor is subversive, an effective tool targeting tyranny and freeing people from fear. There’s a reason why anti-Trump demonstrations in DC feature so many hilarious signs – the people sense it’s working, these little pinpricks getting under the skin of delicate Donald and his supporters.

 

How does this all end? Mass demonstrations began the moment Trump was inaugurated. And they’ve continued despite seasonably cold weather in DC. Six major marches are coming this spring, from everyone from outraged scientists to outrageous juggalos.

If I was the city government, I would prepare for a million people to descend upon Washington, mass demonstrations of a size and scope not seen since the Vietnam War.

 

And if I were demonstrators, I would lay siege to the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue. The General Services Administration foolishly leased this grand building to Donald J. Trump, who garishly affixed his name to it in gold.

But this landmark belongs to the public, who saved it from demolition in the 1970s. Trump does not belong there; the Old Post Office belongs to us.

And, unlike the White House, the so-called Trump International Hotel is not ringed by fences. The Old Post Office is open to the public and right on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is vulnerable and should be the focus of demonstrations.

Surround the Trump Hotel. Discourage stays there. This would hurt Trump in his pocketbook. And, more importantly, his pride. Destroy the Trump brand. Make it mud. That’s how you drive this particular tyrant from office.

From the Sidelines to the Streets: Resistance in DC

Resist banner over the White House
Greenpeace hung this Resist banner on a crane overlooking the White House.

 

Strange days indeed, where I’m retweeting Van Jones. My politics don’t fit into an easy category. I’m socially liberal, believing that people should be free to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t harm others. I also believe that government is too big and does too much, interfering in aspects of life (such as mandating health insurance) that it should stay out of. Nearly a decade of experience as a government contractor has just reinforced that notion. As I wrote in Victory Party, my award-winning short story (shameless plug!) about election night in DC, government is:

nothing but a big blind beast, stumbling across the American landscape, more likely to crush you than help you.

The economy is the most important issue to me; the biggest moral issue of our age is the lack of real economic growth, for it leaves millions unemployed and underemployed in the vast heartland of our country, a tragedy of abandoned towns and people, like a modern Grapes of Wrath. In a fit of 2008 optimism, I voted for Obama but then switched to Romney in 2012, wanting a President that would focus on jobs. He doesn’t look so bad now, does he? Trump vs Clinton was a nightmare choice for me, literally Kang and Kodos. In a fit of pique, I wrote in independent Evan McMullin (I might have a thing for Mormons), knowing that blue DC was going overwhelmingly for Hillary.

Trump merchandise for sale outside Treasury Building
Few takers for Trump merchandise for sale outside the Treasury Building.

Like everyone else, I expected Her to win. When she didn’t, I was ambivalent, fictionalizing my response in Victory Party, my tale of DC on election night.

I am ambivalent no more.

What does it take to get someone as jaded and as cynical as me off the sidelines? A week of chaos from the Trump administration, from the graceless “American carnage” inaugural address to the dissing of the Women’s March and on to the Monday night massacre firing of the acting Attorney General.

Trump is a bully, now with the overly vast power of the federal government behind him. There’s never been a better argument for limiting the size and scope of the executive branch than Donald J. Trump.

I expected the evil – it’s the incompetence that surprises me. They have no idea how government works. And despite their purported social media savvy, it didn’t occur to them that public servants, such as the National Park Service, could push back anonymously using these same tools.

Rather than uniting the country around the need for economic growth, Trump has issued a series of bizarre and poorly thought out decrees. It’s government by tweet, straining this country’s democratic institutions beyond the breaking point.

Protesters besiege the Old Post Office
Muslim ban protesters besiege the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.
me at the Muslim Ban march
Me at the Muslim Ban March. I used Capital Bikeshare to get around and take photos.

The streets of DC have been filled with demonstrations the size and scope of which I have never seen before. And I’ve been out, biking around the city with a camera, capturing the moment. And participating as well, something I never thought I would do.

As Van Jones points out, it’s no longer a question of Democrat vs Republican. It’s whether you believe in democracy or not. If you do, then you must resist.

Solidarity at the White House