The cellular life has turned bookstores into communal phone booths. What happened to the right to privacy from other people's right to privacy?
Confession: I have never owned a cell phone.
I tell people that and typically receive the same incredulous reaction, as if I just owned up to some anachronistic disorder like consumption or a “Perot for Pres” sticker emblazoned on my bumper. Between necessary phone lines at home and work and email, I am readily available and make plans the way the world managed till the mid-1990s: in advance, without flaking. This analog method still holds up — incredible, I know, but true.
I like to think I’m freed from at least one aspect of today’s tyranny of connectivity and have more money to throw at more trendy accessories, like African babies. I accept that the cellular world has annexed public space and happily benefit from this fact daily since everyone I know has a cell, including African babies.
That is, until I enter a bookstore. Not used, rare and modest independent bookshops, where more people practice some form of phone etiquette, but Barnes & Noble, Borders and generic book chains with food courts and roller coasters. Their customers, if indeed that’s what those wandering gabbers are, incite avaricious fantasies of social faux pas in me.
Recently, for instance, a woman aimlessly policed the bargain book section, obnoxiously discussing dinner the week before in English and Spanish; meanwhile, a nearby adolescent enumerated the ways so-and-so, already described as “a motherfuckin’ bitch,” was also a whore. I wanted to leap out of the stacks and ambush both of them, yelling over and over, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?!”
Disruptive and grating, the near-constant conversations have raised bookstore volumes from a comfortable murmur to an all-consuming miasma of digital chatter. No other place, not even movie theaters, has had its atmosphere so annoyingly polluted and mutated by cell phone usage. If you go to expressly concentrate on books, to reflectively explore and discover titles, you are quickly inspired to go home and log on to Amazon.
Around the corner from where I live, the original Dutton’s recently shut down , a Tudorish building where you could peruse in peace and meet characters as fascinating as those in the surrounding tomes. That leaves only the nearby Bookstar, where not only the manic, blue-toothed clientele but also staffers labor to prevent anyone from having any semblance of literary experience. Between the requisite cell phone cacophony, the location’s landline ringing constantly from all corners in shrill hysteria and one cashier’s nasal salutation excruciatingly whined at every customer as if through a megaphone, you start thinking that Stephen King’s Cell does not sound so horrible after all. So the apocalypse will be disseminated via cell phones, reducing their owners to zombies, while “normies” unite to save the world? Sounds like a day at the beach in comparison.
The bottom line is that I don’t want a librarial hush in bookstores, merely the right to privacy from other people’s right to privacy. If I get infuriated in a bookstore, I want it to be for topical reasons, like why the hell Joyce Carol Oates is so prodigious that she has yet another book out, not why the hell non sequiturs are de rigueur in the True Crime section.
Between the Covers is a biweekly book review and publishing analysis.