Tonight I went book shopping, looking for a gift, and wound up having an incredible conversation with the young man from the information desk. Usually when I go to that desk, I get the help I need and I go on with my shopping. The person behind the desk looks up whatever I’m looking for and then points me in the right direction. Little did I know that I’ve been settling for no-frills service before tonight.
I told the guy at the desk that I wanted a book for someone who loves Octavia Butler. It seemed like such a simple thing to say. Instead, he put his head in his hands then rubbed his eyes and frowned. “Oh. Octavia Butler. Well. She was just amazing, wasn’t she?” And then we were off. He started talking about how wonderful her writing is (too true!) and how there really aren’t any writers who are anything like her (also true), and how someone who likes Butler has a very particular taste for quality writing, for thinking, for wrestling with hard questions in an unusual way (true again).
(My sister says there are two reasons strangers talk to me. First, they look at my face and can see that I’ll respond if they talk to me. Second … well … I dorespond when they talk to me. And not just in monosyllables, but in ways that encourage them to keep talking. Yeah, ok. Guilty as charged.)
As he shook his head and rubbed his eyes again, I explained that I am actually not reading some of her books — particularly Kindred — because I want to have something to look forward to. There won’t be any new ones coming out, and I want to have the promise of those unread books to look forward to.¹ That stopped him in his tracks for a second, then he smiled. “Yes, I can see your logic,” he said. He started running through possible authors to try — Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury (he is holding off reading Fahrenheit 451 until he can find the audio book because he wants the experience of hearing the story told as he reads it) — then he turned to leave the desk. “Follow me over here,” he said.
He led me over to one of the book tables and handed me a copy of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Not where my mind would have gone at all, but I let him tell me about it, tell me why he thought it could be a good choice: funny, extremely well written, interesting concept, alternative history/reality, a different kind of speculative fiction. And then he took me over to another book table to showed me Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. And then we just stood around talking about Octavia Butler and all the reasons we love her, all the reasons she should be unfathomably famous, and all the ways her writing can bend your mind and all the writing he did back and forth with people online during the presidential campaign talking about why he was so certain Obama would win and what a victory would mean in terms of what would have to be happening in the minds of millions of people all over the country, how that kind of elaborate mental transformation reminded him of Butler’s writing, and, and, and …
This all ended with the decision that I should be pursuing a doctoral degree. No, I’m serious.² And then he said the best thing: “So, in a few years when I run into you on the street — or maybe here in the store — we have to talk about this, see where it goes.”
¹ And, too, I just know Kindred is going to be such a powerful read for me that I want to wait until I feel more ready for it, have time on the other end of reading it to just sit silent for days and days as I digest it.
² And this is weird because here’s this total stranger having the conversation with me, but even more weird because just this afternoon my boss said the exact same thing.