By Benjy Malings
My mom recently moved from San Diego to Portland, so now I venture up north about once or twice a year. I mostly spend my time doing what most would expect – reading, eating, and drinking coffee. This last visit, for spring break, happened to correspond with a particularly busy workweek for my Mom, meaning I was left with a significant chunk of free time where I was to wander the city.
Of course, my version of wandering ended up being a rather safe one- once again, I found myself perusing the same bookstore for hours on end. I had had a particular one in mind this time around, a perfectly pretentious shop known, hilariously, as “Mother Foucault’s” (I had attempted to visit on a prior trip, but was forestalled due to the site acting as host for a child’s birthday party, only adding to the charm).
The store was, naturally, only open for a brief four-hour window that day, so I headed over as the first event of my day. The store was almost completely empty, save for a a couple of employees discussing the merits of sending their respective children to a university over a trade school (“it’s the only sensible option in this economy. You can learn a helluva lot more making chairs and reading poetry on your own time than you could wasting hours in a classroom.”) I made my way through the store slowly and deliberately, anticipating – as I always do – the moment where divine inspiration strikes my consumer decisions. The philosophy section was a critical theorist’s heaven, a welcome respite from the usual smatterings of Plato and Kant. The fiction section was arranged in no particular order, without much thought given to whether a book was in English or in its original language, whether it was new / used / antique.
But perhaps more striking than anything I could find on the shelf was the boy who had just entered the room, declaring that he had recently dropped out of high school, was on his way to Mexico, and was looking for “a good book to read”. I rolled my eyes at the vague request- clearly not as experienced of book-shopper as I, betraying his lack of education almost immediately. When pressed for a more specific question, the boy simply said: “I dunno. I like Hemingway”.
This seemingly innocuous comment took me to a dangerous place. I immediately scoffed to myself; because of course he would request a Hemingway book. What else does one request when they are a white male traveling alone, eschewing their education, and attempting to experience some quasi-religious moment of self-realization?
The bookseller recommended A Farewell to Arms, which the boy had never heard of to that point. By now, I was seething. A poser, that’s all this boy was. Someone who had heard Hemingway’s name in passing, perhaps in a movie, and took on the artifice of the literary aesthete armed nothing more with an empty name.
Why on earth was I so angry? After all, I myself am a major fan of Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises being a profound moment of self-reflection in my own life. I had read Hemingway only a few years prior, and yet I was internally mocking this boy, holding him to my own impossibly high standards.There is a way in which we hold our cultural tastes- be it cinematic, culinary, or musical- as our ultimate markers of self-definition. They are that unimpeachable set of material artifacts that we can point to say; hey- here’s why I’m special. I’ve spent years cultivating mine, constantly eschewing what I saw as outdated, mainstream, or simply juvenile, in order to constantly appear abreast of the confluence of modernity and class. It, of course, appears I’ve lost something along the way. Literature speaks to us at all different points in our lives, and can be life changing and even life saving. To deny this boy the privilege of reading Hemingway, who speaks such soul-crushingly honesty regarding the experiences of an isolated form of masculinity, would be nothing short of a crime. My own demands of personal authenticity were likely unrealistic in this situation. If you’re not constantly tripping over yourself to appear trendy and relevant, what bother do you give toward appearing overtly mainstream?
And, most importantly, how blatant of a misreading of Hemingway would one have to produce to assume that one should define themselves in the eyes of others, in the eyes of invented cultural standards?
Obviously, none of this occurred to me at the moment. I checked out at the counter with my translated works of Caribbean fiction and my biography of avant-garde composers, my superiority only bolstered by the naiveté just witnessed.
Had I taken a second to overcome my own ego, I think I would have stepped right up and told the boy everything I could about my own experiences with Hemingway, the authors that I’ve experienced since, and how deep down I was envious of the freshness and newness with which he was about to experience a true classic.