Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Of Bikes and Books

I live in a place where very few people ride bikes.  Most people drive cars.  I live in Orange County, California.  When I tell people where I live and that I don’t own a car, they give me quizzical looks, as if to ask, “How the hell do you survive in the OC without a car?”  It’s not an accident that most people drive cars.  Much of modern-day Orange County was developed after World War II, and it was developed in the age of the automobile.  Development companies specifically designed communities for the automobile.  The city of Irvine is the most extreme example of this. 

I live in the city of Fullerton, which still has remnants of its pre-world world war II existence.  There is still an old downtown with buildings that were built in the 1920s, when oranges were king.  But, aside from downtown, much of Fullerton is not bike-friendly.  There are not very many bike lanes.  But, even if there were bike lanes, I suspect most people would continue to drive cars because cars are much more convenient.  In many ways, I feel like a man born out of time.  I don’t want a car.  I want nothing to do with cars.  The reasons for this are varied and complex.

Today, after teaching my morning class, I hopped on my bike and rode to the far edge of Fullerton, to Amerige Heights, where stands the last big book store in town, Barnes & Noble.  (There are, however, comic book shops in town and my own little store BOOKMACHINE).  It’s a difficult ride to Barnes & Noble, because there are no bike lanes along the road out there, Malvern.  Often, I must ride on sidewalks, but they are narrow, and some of them have large telephone poles right in the middle, which require me to actually stop my bike, get off, walk it around the poles, get back on the bike, and continue.  And so on.  It’s slow going to get to the book store, but I’m in no hurry.  I prefer a slower pace of life.  As cars zoom by, I feel like a man out of pace with the modern world.  I am okay with this.

I arrive at Barnes & Noble, which is situated in a massive shopping center that used to be a massive Hughes Aircraft plant, back when the Cold War made people afraid of their neighbors and retreat into the solace of their houses and televisions.  In this shopping center there are two Starbuckses, a Target, an Albertsons grocery store, a Souplantation, etc.  It’s a fairly typical Orange County suburban shopping center, with a large parking lot…and no bike racks.  I chain my bike to a metal fence, and carry my helmet inside.  I always wear a helmet because the lack of bike lanes makes bike riding a dangerous affair in Orange County.  My mom was recently struck by a car, and fractured her collar bone.  My friend Nick was hit about a year ago, and smacked his head on the asphalt.  I saw the pool of blood.  This is why I wear a helmet.

I’m not looking for a particular book in Barnes & Noble.  I want a good novel.  Maybe a classic, maybe a new one by a new up-and-coming writer.  I’m just going to browse, which is mostly what I like to do in book stores.  Same with video stores, which are also disappearing.  Most people prefer to do their shopping online, or in “big box” retail centers like Target.  The other day I was in Target, looking in their “books” section, which is one aisle.  It basically had just the latest bestsellers, most of which were now either major motion pictures or television shows, or in the process of being turned into major motion pictures or television shows, a fact which the dust jackets of the books loudly proclaimed.  The book section at Target is really depressing if you are someone who values literature, which I am.  A man out of time.

Man, I love book stores.  I could get lost here.  I wander to the fiction/literature section and just, like, browse, occasionally picking up a book, checking out the cover, reading the dust jacket, reading the first few pages, seeing if this is the kind of book I would like to invest my money and time into reading.  There are so many books to read.

Browsing the “new fiction” section is encouraging to me, because it demonstrates that people are still writing novels.  There’s a new one out by one of my favorite writers, Dave Eggers.  He is very prolific.  There’s a new book called The Childhood of Jesus by the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, who won the Nobel Prize.  I wrote a paper about his novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, in graduate school.  I learn from the dust jacket that this book is not, actually, about the childhood of Jesus.  It is, I gather, about two boys from South Africa.

I just read Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut (for the second time) and absolutely loved it.  Maybe I’ll get another Vonnegut novel.  I want something funny and serious and science-fictiony.  They have lots of novels by Kurt Vonnegut here: Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.  But I want something new.  An author I’ve never read, or one I haven’t read in a while.  I head over to the children’s section.  I was thinking of picking up one of the sequels to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, either A Wind in the Door or A Swiftly Tilting Planet.  Good children’s literature is not just for children.  Case in point: I have a tattoo of The Little Prince on my arm.

I browse the graphic novels section.  I dig a good graphic novel, like Persepolis or Maus or American Splendor.  There’s a kid sitting on the floor right in front of the graphic novels section, reading a graphic novel.  It looks like The Walking Dead, which is now a major television series.

I want something that is both classic literature AND science fiction.  And then my eye catches Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read.  THAT’S IT!  I pick up a copy.  Fahrenheit 451 is about a dystopian future where everyone watches television on big screens and no one reads anymore.  I doubt people ride bikes either.  I can’t wait to read it.


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