The battery was dying. Not every day, not all at once, but sometimes when I needed it most my iPhone would drop 30 percentage points in the blink of an eye. So I took a Lyft down to the Apple Store in Georgetown, talked to The Genius, as such people are called, signed his iPad, handed the device over and found myself completely disconnected from the Internet for the first time in months.
And as I exited the glossy white techno-oasis into the cobblestone swamp, it struck me: I had two hours to kill and nothing to do. I’d forgot to bring a kindle, or anything for that matter, to pass the time.
And where was I? I knew the intersection, but since I rarely go to Georgetown, I had no idea what was around me and had no means to look it up.
I wandered into the swamp.
This is a book review pretending to be a review of a physical store dressed up as an existential Odyssey of Disconnection.
Don’t mind me, I write these things entirely for my own amusement.
Reincarnation Blues begins with the story of Milo, a very wise fisherman, on his 999,995th life, who is unfortunately about to be eaten by the shark. Much ink is spilled on Milo being wise, and the shark being hungry, before the two accidentally meet and Milo plunges back into the afterlife.
Milo, it seems, is on deadline: he only has 5 more tries to achieve perfection and become one with everything, and in between have a secret love affair with Death (she prefers to go by Suzie).
The novel tells stories across time of the various lives of Milo. Some happy, some horrid, some lucky, some profoundly strange. Some of the stories are more captivating than others, but they’re also trapped in a unique framing: we know Milo will die, and we know his goal is to achieve perfection and become one with everything. We know if he’s eaten by a shark or dies of old age he’ll wake up in a river with Suzie waiting to hear how he did.
It’s a fun book. It’s a weird book. It’s profoundly endearing and disturbing at once, a trick it can pull off because each of Milo’s 10,000 lives give it a way to extend the story’s range.
The plot hinges on a question that Milo and the Universe don’t always agree on: what exactly is perfection?
I kept thinking I was going to run into one of those big map-signs with “You are here” and an arrow and a directory of nearby stores, like you find in malls, but there was no such thing. Why bother? Don’t you have a map of the whole planet sitting in your pocket?
It’d be useful to have a bookstore nearby, I thought. I could have gone to the other Apple Store which is right next to a Barnes and Noble—that was still open, right?
Just when I was about to give up I stumbled into a black storefront for Amazon Books, and my head clicked. I’d read about this, someone had mentioned it opened in DC, but I hadn’t put the pieces together.
And so I entered the brick and mortar mind of Jeff Bezos and/or Alexa.
Urban bookstores are all about density. Books for square inch. Narrow aisles, tall shelves, packed table displays. They’re serendipity machines of covers between displays on the off chance something catches your attention. They have character and that’s no accident, it might be the main reason they’re still in business.
By contrast, Amazon’s looked sterile. It’s the Amazon Basics of stores: functional, clean, modern, and devoid of personality. Mostly black. Their main display consists of an “if you like X you might like” setup that routes fans of popular books to other popular books.
If you like Ready Player One you might like Fahrenheit 451. Odd choice. Is there really anyone who’s never heard of Fahrenheit 451?
I wandered through the giant Alexa/Kindle/Amazon Basics Headphones displays that took up most of the first floor to find something to, you know, actually read. Most sections were confined to a single shelf, the books all laying with their covers face out—instead of spine out—and a little blurb of praise below each one.
I thought back to when I was growing up in St. Louis and would spend an inordinate amount of time browsing the endless shelves of a suburban Borders. I remember discovering a new author I liked with a huge back catalogue and gradually working my way through it. These were jarringly finite.
There was a young woman bouncing back and force between the Mystery and Romance shelves, not so much browsing or deciding between things as trying to figure out if she actually wanted any of this at all.
I should pick up something, I thought, realizing I still had way too much time to kill.
The more I walked back and forth across the same shelves the more of those little blurbs I read, the more they blended together. If everything is a page-turning masterpiece nothing is a page-turning masterpiece. It’s the Amazon Basics of book reviews: simple, modern, indistinctive. Good enough.
Sometimes Basic is precisely what you want. Becca and I host a game night from time to time that involves a lot of drawing: cheap, white, basic notepads are the perfect tool for the job. But what is a basic book review?
And I understand the dilemma: I write little blurbs about all the concerts I see. Sometimes I have something interesting to say. More often than not, I am tongue-tied. “Um, it was a good show?”
I’ve heard you can scan the prices of books to see your Prime discount (so Jeff/Alexa can track everything you look at) and check out with your phone so you don’t have to talk to a cashier, a feature requested by nobody outside of Silicon Valley. I obviously couldn’t do either of these things, so I swiped some old-fashioned plastic on an iPad and picked up a bookmark on my way out.
I set down at an Irish Pub across the street that I later learned gets one quarter of its business from people waiting on Apple repairs.1 I ordered an Allagash White and started reading the first chapter on Milo, the wise fisherman who’d live 999,994 past lives, and was about to be eaten by a shark.
And it was around then that I actually noticed the bookmark was an Amazon ad:
Leaders are Listening
CEOs read a book a week. How do they find the time? They listen with Audible.
Enjoy 2 free audiobooks when you start your 30-day trial.
It shows the cover of Grit, a business-self-help pop psyche book, below.
Let’s skip the part where CEOs don’t actually read a book a week unless they’re lying, skimming, or counting reading Go Dog Go to their kids. Let’s go straight to the subtext:
Reincarnation Blues has a notion of perfection that is about doing something meaningful in the world. It varies by circumstances, not unlike Aristotle’s notion of the good life, with a little more emphasis on impact.
Amazon Books’ is about becoming a CEO, which you can totally achieve if you subscribe to Audible and listen to pop business blather during your daily commute.
What does that mean?
My first instinct is to say Jeff-Alexa, the man-robot-AI who mastered the art of selling books on the internet doesn’t understand why anyone still goes to book stores in the first place. Or possibly why they read in the first place.
But then again, maybe there is a contingent of foolish gentlemen living or working in Georgetown who do stop by to find the latest from the business self-improvement industrial complex. Perhaps there is some Big Data to support this.
I don’t know.
I picked up my phone two hours later and, if I’m being honest, haven’t been off the grid since.