Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Madness, Delusions, Coincidence, Purpose!

It happened again. This time I was sitting at Jiffy Lube in the dingy waiting room looking onto the garage floor. It smelled of used oil. I was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, laughing, and ignoring a ridiculous talk show on the static television and an air wrench zipping off lug nuts. But it didn’t start there.

It started in southwest Michigan last July in a bookstore smaller than my apartment, packed with untreated-pine shelves, stacked floor to ceiling with books. Wood pulp hung in the air. A struck match would’ve killed us all. So it goes. That’s where I bought Slaughterhouse-Five. Like usual, I bought the book because a friend raved about Vonnegut. And it was a classic—the kind best purchased at small, used bookstores like this, in places like southwest Michigan.

I didn’t start reading the book until today, six months later, at Jiffy Lube.

In between that bookstore and this oil change, another friend mentioned in passing his favorite bookshop. This one was bigger but had pine shelves too and books stacked up to the drop-ceiling. And unlike the freestanding fire hazard along Red Arrow Highway, the Frugal Muse was in a strip mall in the suburbs, one of three locations.

After he told me about Frugal Muse and liking the name, I found the address online and decided to devote Sunday afternoon to visiting it. As usual, all the books were spine out except for a few on the front tables. So, as usual, I pressed my ear to my shoulder to read titles. I’ve been made fun of for that, but I don’t know how else to do it.

The place was dominated by shelves of fiction but scant on religion, long on biography but spare on philosophy and sociology. Still, off the sociology shelves I pulled a few books, abandoning religion and philosophy to their respective teleologies. Among the books were two slim volumes with titles that would cause most eyes to glaze over in their reading.

One had been translated from French, a noble effort. It recounted how childhood developed in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries—not a childhood but childhood in general, the concept. Apparently, before that, childhood didn’t really exist. The age of innocence was a foreign idea. Once weaned from their mother’s breast, children were autonomous individuals fully endowed with personhood. But in the 16th century a fundamental shift took place, beginning with “coddling” children, then extending to protecting and nurturing children, until much of family life centered on them.

I don’t remember the title of this noble work, and I wouldn’t have remembered the second book’s title either, except for what happened at Jiffy Lube. The second book was called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. It was an old book from the 1840s, now in the public domain, and reprinted cheaply by some nameless publisher. I leafed through it briefly, but the writing was scholarly and difficult, and I couldn’t focus. I can’t read hardly at all when there’s music playing like there was at Frugal Muse that Sunday afternoon. For air wrenches and blaring televisions, it’s music that really distracts my attention. The cacophony of a thousand conversations doesn’t distract me, but the sound of one voice cannot be ignored. I read a bit about an obsession with tulips that arose in the country of the Netherlands. The author remarked at how it seems the more delicate an object, the greater the attentiveness it is given (a bit like children, I suppose). In the case of one wealthy Dutchman, 100,000 florins was not too much for 40 bulbs.

All this was novel and provincial, but the music was distracting, and the reading hard going, so I abandoned the book for something lighter, or less important, or less substantial, more contemporary. It seemed a curious oddity, the kind of book you thumb through on a Sunday afternoon, nothing worth purchasing.

But all this happened before I’d begun reading Slaughterhouse-Five. I know nothing about its author, Kurt Vonnegut, except what others have told me, and that is very little. He is an eclectic writer as far as I’m concerned. I thought for a long time that Slaughterhouse-Five was a sort of Stephen King-type horror novel, like Clockwork Orange, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Weird. So when I finally dropped the book into my bag this morning, I expected to be exposed to something altogether different. Perhaps indeed it is, for I’ve only just started reading it. Just today, at Jiffy Lube.

So as I read along—the narrator was talking about the Second World War and all wars being like glaciers—he began mentioning limericks about, well I won’t say, and songs about Wisconsin, and then he began quoting from books too. And before I knew it, he was talking about a book by Charles Mackay, who wrote about the mass pilgrimage of millions of children in the Children’s Crusade of 1213. Apparently, two monks convinced these children that they were headed to Palestine when really they were put on ships that sank in the Mediterranean on their way to North Africa. The ships that did make it, delivered their goods into slavery there. The book was titled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

I gasped when I read the title and recalled my Sunday afternoon just a few weeks ago at the Frugal Muse in the strip mall that my friend had mentioned in passing. It was long after I’d already purchased Slaughterhouse-Five. How now that I should run across the same title is this brief time span? Could running across this obscure title in the span of a month be merely coincidence? I wondered. Am I detecting a pattern like a cheap metal detector where there are really only random pinging sounds? Is it meaningful—more than coincidence?

Or am I the common denominator here? Is it possible that somehow, despite my varied interests, that I am attracted to obscure and modern books that are in fact quite similar? Perhaps my interests aren’t so varied as I believed. Maybe these two books have more similarities than I recognize. But maybe not.

Then I thought about those children in 1213 and how they had probably all been weaned autonomous and fully endowed with personhood. I thought about how in the year 1213 nobody had thought of them as innocent, and so hadn’t coddled or nurtured them. I wondered what families did before the 1600s. What was their telos then? I mean seriously, where were their parents?

* Note the alternate title for Slaughterhouse-Five.

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