As a bookseller, there are days when the impulse to laugh has to be squelched mercilessly. Bad for business.
Evidence the first:
A customer on the telephone wants a copy of The Autobiography of Mark Twain - which we, as well as most of the bookstores/online sources/etc. in this country, are completely sold out of due to small print runs vs. high demand (you can get it electronically, like I did if you want to read it and want to either a) save money or b) save time, or both). I explain this to the customer who "needs this for a Christmas present today" (it's January, so someone's advance planning has failed). I apologise, offer to hold the audiobook we have on hand only to be ordered to call the other bookstores in the area. So in the interests of "good customer service" I put the customer on hold, checked the online inventory, found that the closest on hand copy is several states away, called the local indie bookstore, and they didn't have any either (I believe their bookseller actually snorted when I asked if they had any copies of the Twain). So I got my customer back on the line, informed him of this, and, once again offered to hold the audiobook because no one has any hardcovers on hand and we're all waiting for the same print run for a re-stock. The customer explodes "That's Communist!" and proceeds to tell me all about how it's soooo like the Communists that the publisher didn't print enough copies of the biography of the most famous author in America because everyone should have a copy and he wants to buy one, yadda, yadda, yadda. Um, "Communist"? Does someone needs a lesson in basic political and economic ideology? It's "Capitalist" to cause demand to go up by not printing enough copies because "Communist" is where you share everything, i.e. there's one for everybody. I told him that I'm sure the University of California Press would love to hear his opinion, but I didn't think it would make the printing presses run any faster, and would he like me to hold the audiobook (hint, hint). He took the hint and the audiobook. Oy vey.
Evidence the second:
Three teenage girls are wandering around the store, talking loudly about books that they are looking for including The Scarlet Letter and it "has to be on the bestsellers somewhere" (they've walked past me and another bookseller at this point and we both looked at each other and gave the "WTF" look). I would normally just offer to help but there's some people who just have to learn to give up and ask on their own - these three are those people, plus I wanted to hear more of the conversation. I should have offered to help because the conversation started to depress me. This trio of well-fed, obviously well-cared for girls are wandering around talking about how they don't read, and don't go to bookstores, and are being forced to read Huckleberry Finn and it's, like, omigod sooo hard (these girls are old enough to drive themselves to the mall, just FYI). They are actually PROUD of the fact that they don't read. So they finally come find me - arranging the new bestsellers, none of which are The Scarlet Letter - and ask for the Nicholas Sparks books....and I show them to the section about 8 feet behind them, alphabetical by author's last name. Then one of the girls does ask for The Scarlet Letter - so I ask my favorite question ever "Do you need a particular edition?" which completely confuses the poor girl and her face literally goes blank. So we go to Hawthorne and I pull the cheapest edition off the shelf. She still looks confused so I take a little pity on her and ask if she knows anything about the book. Nope, she doesn't know anything about it but she's supposed to read it...nope, she has no idea that it's over 150 years old or about Puritans...and she has trouble reading Huck Finn...and I'm thinking, oh crap, so I ask her, as gently as I can, if she would like me to recommend something else for her to read (I'm assuming it's for school, but I could be wrong). No, no, this is fine so the trio wanders back off to Nicholas Sparks. Pretty soon they come find me again - do I have any Cliffs Notes for Nicholas Sparks's The Rescue? I actually felt my teeth click together so my mouth wouldn't fall open. Er, no, we don't have any Sparknotes for Nicholas Sparks books...but, yes, we do have Sparknotes for Huck Finn. I take two of the three over to the Study Aids section (surprisingly, the girl with The Scarlet Letter is not interested in a Sparknotes for her book; she's determined to read it - I could have hugged her for saying that - so she hung around the Teen New Releases) to find Huck Finn and the whole way there the one girl keeps going on and on (loudly) about how long the book is and how hard it is to read and how it has, like, 500 pages and that's soooo unfair and she's not going to read it if she doesn't have to - I wanted to slap her. So I pulled the Sparknotes for Huck Finn off the rack, handed it to her, and said "Just so you know, all the teachers have read all the study aids and cheat sheets for the books you read in class. So you'll still need to read the book. Huck Finn is still relevant because Huck has to re-think his attitudes about slavery and people of color as he and Jim become friends. And, by the way, Huck Finn is often marketed as a children's book, it's only about 200 to 250 pages depending on the edition...War and Peace has 1000 pages, that's a long book." That shut her up.
Why are people so proud of being ignorant and stupid? It's like a badge of honor, trumpeting their stupidity (look at that waste case, Snooki). In the case of the three girls (because I have no idea what my phone customer looks like), it's obvious that they have money, that their parents spare no expense for them, so why parade around like some uneducated hick? Why not take pride in the advantages of an education? I've read Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason so I understand that the divide between the intelligence haves and have-nots has always existed but it always makes me go "huh?" I try to be helpful and optimistic but the really dogged way that some people just cling to their ignorance makes me want to crawl back in my hidey-hole (or point and laugh, depending on situation).