A prod from Simic

Came across an essay — a blog post, really — which set me to thinking. (It was by Charles Simic, whose work is liable to put anyone’s brain in motion.) He was writing about serendipitous joys of bookstores, those lovely obsolescent remnants of civilized society. Go. Read it, then come back and finish here.

It reminded me of my own fascination with old-fashioned commerce: real hardware stores (there’s one in town, half a mile away, where I go occasionally just for the ambiance, needing nothing but usually coming away with something); real drug stores, the kind with a soda fountain but without Cheerios and beer.

And of course, book stores. The one which came to mind reading Simic’s piece was in New York, as his was, and still is. My first experience there was in the late Fifties. I had just gotten out of the Army, and was trying to find myself in Manhattan. (I learned that I wasn’t there, and perhaps just as well.) But I did find jazz clubs and city parks and — here it comes at last — book stores.

From somewhere in my late teens, I had a memory of a book about mass delusions. I looked around the used book section for something called “Mass Delusions.” Found nothing. A well-dressed elderly man stood at the top of the stairway — I was on the second floor — as if ready to answer questions. He was, in fact, there to answer questions.

I had heard him, a few minutes before, deal with a middle-aged woman who asked where to find a book by Grace Metalious: “On the first floor, madam, in the fiction section, on the shelf marked ‘M.’” His tone made clear that neither the woman nor the book she wanted — Peyton Place — was worthy of his time or energy.

I approached hesitantly, reluctant to admit my youthful ignorance, expecting a similar curt dismissal. But I summoned up courage, and asked. He looked at me a moment, then scratched his jaw, thought another moment, and said, “There is just such a book, young man, and I’ve come across it, but cannot recall the exact title. I am sorry.”

All right. I was not an absolute fool after all. I thanked him for his time and wandered off to look at other books. Ten minutes later, he tracked me down and reported, in great good humor, that I was looking for Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay, first published in 1841.

Then he took me to a shelf holding three copies of the book. I picked one up, leafed through it, and went to the cash register to pay for it. I’m pretty sure his good cheer had to do with recalling and finding the book more than with selling it.

Anyway, a few excerpts from EPD — I’ve lost that bookstore copy, but have it now as an epub, thanks to Gutenberg.

  • “Three causes especially have excited the discontent of mankind; and, by impelling us to seek remedies for the irremediable, have bewildered us in a maze of madness and error. These are death, toil, and the ignorance of the future..”
  • “Nations, like individuals, cannot become desperate gamblers with impunity. Punishment is sure to overtake them sooner or later.”
  • “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”

There is more, much more. Worth looking at next time you marvel at how wise and clever we are today.

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2 thoughts on “A prod from Simic

  1. There is little incentive to get pride and satisfaction from working at a job nowadays. It comes from a source no one would ever expect– one’s co-workers. Democracy has come to mean everyone being at the same level of … well… everything. So things sit nicely muted all round. Few stick out–good or bad– although those who stick out in a bad way are just seen as mentally ill and tolerated as pets or topics. Sticking out in a good way gets you hated and seen as elitist. Common man has so few criteria to toss about now. My daughter, who was in med school at the time, one day received a letter and bouquet from a grateful patient. In short order, she also received one from the supervisor telling her that her whole team was to be thanked for the patient’s positive impression. It was pointed out to my daughter that she was to look at her “thank you” letter and flowers in a team context. Need I say more?

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