Friday, April 06, 2007

The paralysis of choice...

in the modern airport bookstore, with a 2-hour flight delay.

I'm too tired, and frustrated with travel, to work. Too tired to read the French book in my pocket which is the only fiction I brought with me. Read last week's Economist on the morning leg and don't feel lik ebuying this week's now.

In the old days: buy some trashy piece of Clancy, get $8 enjoyment out of it between the delay, the flight, and the flight home.

But-- have you noticed-- the quality of fiction in moderately-good airport bookstores is much, much higher than it used to be.

In addition, I've got the constraints set by my various fetishes about books. I can't just look for $8 worth of entertainment. I've got to be willing to make a lifetime commitment-- the book will need shelf space, and will need to be packed and unpacked and reshelved who knows how many times.

Can't buy a book I already have, even if the next book on my to-read list happens to be for sale and it's the book I most want to start reading.

Can't buy a book I might already have, and since I haven't finished my LibraryThing database, can't check to verify from here. This eliminates a lot of books I think look interesting, since I've thought they looked interesting before, remember having done so, but can't remember whether I bought them or not.

Can't buy a book my wife has or might have.

Don't want to buy something that's too big or heavy-- pocket-sized in my overcoat is ideal, since I'm already lugging laptop, two dissertations, book to review, book to comment on, and the French book.

I pick up pulp fantasy books-- a Terry Brooks, a Terry Goodkind, and an R.A. Salvatore, none of whom I've ever read. The Terry Pratchett (what the hell is it with Terrys?) seems promising, but if I ever start Discworld, I want to start it, not just pick up book #73. The Brooks and Goodkind are disspiritingly familiar; I flip through them and feel like random pages from the middle are pages I might have read before. I'm emotionally committed to finishing out Robert Jordan; there will be a new George R.R. Martin someday reasonably soon; don't want to start a new series, when the existing series already feel like a drain on my fiction-reading time. I'd almost have bought a Salvatore Forgotten Realms novel, but I don't want the brick of a book that packages the whole Dark Elf trilogy. And in any case I find I want my brain to be a litle more exercised.

I turn to the non-genre fiction. First look at three different Ian McEwan novels (how many has he written??), put them all back when I realize that I don't want to feel brutalized this weekend, as I always do at the end of a McEwan novel. Ishiguro strikes me the same way; I'm not prepared to be emotionally exhausted. I want something that's emotionally comparable to the old "airport novel" even though I want soemthing that's intellectually more interesting.

Weird non-transitive reasoning. I put down Kundera novels of which I've read bad reviews, though they're undoubtedly of vastly greater literary merit than the Salvatore I might have bought. The book of Chabon short stories feels too slight when I'm in the mood for a novel, even though-- to reiterate-- a moment ago I was thinking about buying licensed D&D fiction.

The constraints based on books I already own start cutting deeper; why should I make a lifetime investment in a book that I've previously deliberately foregone in favor of a better book that's waiting for me on the shelves back home, or even one that I'm confident will be a lesser book? But the books which I'm sure don't violate those constraints-- I don't own Snow, would liek to give it a try, don't think that it's an inferior verion of anything I've got waiting at home-- all seem to violate the size-and-weight constraints.

This is all relatively silly, because I'll undoubtedly sleep through the flight. But somehow I can't bring myself not to be looking for the perfect book to fit my mood and constraints; there's still an hour and a half until takeoff, and in principle I want to read my way through that time...


60 hours later, the same dilemma-- this time with an unexpected twelve-hour delay in SFO. David Lodge? Seems perfect, but all the have is Author, Author, and that seems like a book one would appreciate a lot more with a lot of(or even some) familiarity with Henry James. Murakami? A big commitment-- if I like the novel it will might consume a week I really can't spare right now, and in any event Murakami joined McEwan and Ishiguro in my great-novels-that-were-emotionally-inappropriate-for-a-Belize-vacation hat trick in December. (One novel, Never Let Me Go, of the struggle to extract emotional normalcy out of the bizarre and disturbing, and two novels, Saturday and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, about the eruption of the bizarre and disturbing and violent into ordinary life.) Though I walk around the bookstore with Norwegian Wood in my hand for a while; I'm close. This store has the first Discworld novel; I give it fifteen pages to grab my interest or my funnybone, and it does neither. I wonder why, given how highly-recommended it is by people whose tastes resemble mine. Spin seems promising. So does Christopher Moore, A Dirty Job. Had the Susannah Clarke collection of short stories set in the world of Strange & Norrell been in paperback I would have snappd it up, but instead it was in a lovely hardcover that I didn't want to add to the weight on my shoulder. Kundera's Ignorance, which wasn't in the other store, gets a serious look, and is added to Norwegian Wood in my hand.

And then, somehow, I spend enough time in the bookstore that I get through the wave of exhaustion and annoyance at American Airlines that had been preventing me from working. I put the books down, leave the bookstore, note its closing hour in case I change my mind later, and head out for a place to open my laptop...