A Halloween Horror Story in Advance: Beware Martians and Terrorists Bearing Gifts

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A HALLOWEEN HORROR STORY

Beware Martians and Terrorists Bearing Gifts

Winning at any cost is not something we humans get to do very often.

To win at any cost usually translates into some suicidal act.

That’s why the battle cry “Victory at any cost!” is likely to be mere bluster, more empty saber-rattling.

To win at any cost means you’re probably going to have to die in the process. That doesn’t sound like winning to most of us, but to those who think outside the box, the idea of dying for victory is a valid one.

Some examples:

The Trojan War dragged on for a decade and might never have ended, had Ulysses (Odysseus) not stepped back and resolved to win the war at any cost. What warlord, trained in the rigid format of weaponry and mass military strategy, would have predicted that a handful of unarmed soldiers could wrap themselves in a gift horse and take over an entire city? For thirty centuries, the tale of the surprise, innovation and cleverness of this suicidal act has been repeated, until the myth has become a myth of itself. And, as we all know, myth turns to metaphor.

Perhaps storytellers in the Middle East for the next thirty centuries will repeat the tale of a handful of unarmed soldiers hiding themselves in the bellies of flying metal beasts to bring down the mighty towers of the Western Devils.

In 1897 the author H.G. Wells, knowing his history and acutely aware of its perpetual repetition, tried to warn us all of what happens each time we rely on structured machineries of warfare, each time we forget to use our creative thought processes to anticipate the worst and prepare to deflect it. The novel THE WAR OF THE WORLDS was the result: a Trojan Martian attack from an unexpected direction and for an unknown motive. Sacrifice of a handful of soldiers in a—to the aliens—just cause was the result, and quite effective. Thirty centuries from now, the tale of a handful of outsiders stomping the vermin of Earth in order to colonize, will be told and its metaphor unconsciously understood. The Martian storytellers just might leave out the part about eventually dying after the attack.

And do we learn from such monolithic, in-your-face mythology? Let’s see…

At any moment, the people of Earth could be exterminated—this time by forces known and understood—but very little is being done to prevent it. The reasons are clear. Day-to-day life and politics distract us from preparation. The mosquito on the arm is immediate and can be dealt with in a rapid and unimaginative manner. The five-mile-wide asteroid that’s headed our way is way out there, invisible, and perhaps won’t make itself known till it’s too late. Its effect will be a trillion-fold worse than a mosquito bite, but it’s, like, man, it’s like something that might not happen, man, and don’t bug me about it—I gotta take care of this mosquito.

I suppose Trojans and New Yorkers, somewhere in the backs of their minds, knew that Something Bad could happen at any moment, but we all go on living, knowing that. When we read about H.G. Wells’ Martian war or Homer’s Trojan war or the Twin Towers or an impending meteor, we understand that it can take place, but we are all betting in the same reverse lottery—it’s a long shot, expecting to draw the winning apocalyptic ticket number. Probably won’t happen in my lifetime, so not to worry!

I live in Alabama, a virtual magnet for tornadoes, but each time one misses me, I’m secretly grateful that somebody else is being made miserable, while at the same time feeling bad for them. It didn’t hit me this time. Oh, as a poet, I feel guilty about this, but I’m sitting here, eating chocolate chip cookies and breathing more deeply, just the same.

In order to conquer a planet, you have to think like a Martian. In order to conquer a society, you have to think like a Greek warrior. Then you have to be willing to evaporate along with your victims. Since most of us aren’t willing to make that leap, a lot fewer terrorist acts take place than you would imagine. There are still lots of people who can see beyond politics and dogma and focus on the important things, such as watching sunrises, burping babies, holding loved ones, protecting neighbors. We just aren’t motivated to die violently—if we can help it.

Once you think like this, wars, sports events and contests lose some of their appeal. The way to win a fencing match or a chess game is to pull out a gun and shoot your opponent(s) dead. If you’re not willing to do that, then you don’t really want to win, do you? Besides, most of us want the losing party to survive, so that we can gloat and strut.

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS was a cautionary tale, but the peculiar thing about humans is that, even though we know things could end badly, we just go on living in denial, hoping that something bad, if it happens, will happen somewhere else. Wells knew this, but he also knew that to be human is to try and try again to survive, against all odds, against all mockery and ignorance and hostility

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Tender is the Obsolete Once-Tended Tinderbox

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Tender is the Obsolete Once-Tended Tinderbox

I watch new buildings being erected throughout ancient Southside Birmingham in which I reside. In some cases, century-old historic structures are bulldozed in the tradition of all developers everywhere. Here and there,  high-speed carpentry replaces a vacant lot with a multi-storied block of pressed particle board hidden by brick.

“Those condos would go up in flames like a tinderbox,” one bystander remarks, at which point I begin recording in print these observations and events, hoping that future generations will appreciate what it was like to watch history defaced and replaced in a matter of hours.

But, as a scribe of history, I mull over these  ideas:

Will anybody be reading anything a hundred years hence, and will all my efforts and the efforts of thousands of writers be in vain?

Even if there remains a small population of readers, even if some of them actually study history anymore, even if my written words are preserved so that real readers can find them, will they understand what I have written?

If my words are found and appreciated, will I, the writer, have been respectful enough to my future readers to use language that they can readily understand? For instance, the comment, “Those condos would go up in flames like a tinderbox,” is not self-explanatory. Who knows what a tinderbox is nowadays, much less in a few decades? If I carefully state that a tinderbox is a box containing tinder, flint, steel or other items for kindling fires, will I lose the reader? Who will know what flint is, or kindling? Should I say, “Those condos are so frail and wood-based that they would go up in flames like burning newspapers.” Wait—nobody will know what a newspaper is, let alone what a condo is.

“Those condos are so fragile they would go up in flames like a meth lab.” Uh, what’s a meth lab?

“Those condos are so flammable they would burn like a BIC lighter.” By then, self-lighting cigarettes will have made lighters disappear as quickly as bottle openers.

All these remarks might have been meaningful at the time of writing but by the time a next-generation reader reads them, they may be puzzling or boring.

So, how can a writer attempt to communicate with the Future?

Good question.

To make yourself clear, you just have to view each sentence as if you are a Martian.

Are there universal words that can replace faddish words or slang words or brand-name words or doomed words?

Yes.

The writer who wants to be understood beyond the present and the temporary just has to write smarter than most scribes.

“To be or not to be, that is the question,” is such a remarkably simple statement that its many meanings are never lost on each generation.

If Hamlet had said, “Uh, I don’t know whether I should pull a Kevorkian or just go on feeling disenfranchised and depressed,” his forgettable thought would not have lasted a season at the theatre. Who would know the meaning of Kevorkian or disenfranchised or even depression in a thousand years?

Next time you see particle board replacing genealogy and remembrance and lineage, think how you would describe the horror to Martians or futuristic societies.

The exercise could be fun

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Another Whirlwind Roller Coaster Bumper Car Day in the Magic City

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Another Whirlwind Roller Coaster Bumper Car Day in the Magic City

My car heads west on the Bessemer Super Highway this morning. I don’t have to tell my car to do this. It just does it. I’m riding in a driverless car.

The signs along the way are worth the drive. There by the side of the road is GRANNY’S LITTLE ANGELS DAY CARE CENTER. I still miss the long-gone POWER RANGERS FOR CHRIST DAY CARE CENTER. Maybe those tiny Power Rangers became little angels one day.

I would pick out my favorite sign, but each one is a favorite for a special moment. Look! There’s MIDFIELD THE CONVENIENT CITY. I’d love to have been in on the committee meetings that decided on this slogan. “Well, Charles, I think your idea about MIDFIELD THE IN-BETWEEN CITY is a little vague. And Andy’s YOU’RE PASSING THROUGH MIDFIELD ON THE WAY TO SOMEPLACE ELSE is too long.”

Actually, MIDFIELD A WORK IN PROGRESS wouldn’t be bad.

One pedestrian is walking a scruffy dog. He holds his head high and takes a deep breath of fresh air, then sticks the large billowing cigar back into his mouth and continues on, deep in a portable cloud.

Along the way, I look for clotheslines. I miss clotheslines. The last time I visited my Aunt Margaret in Cuba, Alabama, she was out in the yard hanging out clothes, ignoring the nice washer-dryer combination in the house. When I helped bring them in, they smelled of pure air and cleansed soul. The same way they smelled sixty years ago in my backyard in Tuscaloosa, when Mother and I would quickly take them down in advance of a storm.

A man crosses the street in front of my idling automatic vehicle. He strolls with the calm air of someone who has no appointments. How I envy him.

In some of the passing mysterious places, highly trafficked,  somebody somewhere has forgotten to put up a sign telling the name of the street or the name of the intersection…thus depriving people of knowing where they are. Thus depriving the neighborhood of its history.

I remember when the sign at the entrance of my childhood home, EASTWOOD AVENUE, was removed by the city of T-Town without warning. Someone had decided a numerical system would make more sense. Our street was stripped of its story. But to us, those  who lived much of our lives on EASTWOOD AVENUE, it would always be EASTWOOD AVENUE. Some things cannot be removed.

Cesare Pavese once wrote, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.”

That’s why my pockets are bulging with tiny sticky notes jotted with moments.

Never know when they might come in handy

 

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Something to Do When You Are Not Doing Anything

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Something to Do When You Are Not Doing Anything

Writing is something to do when I am not doing anything. Indeed, if I had a choice, writing is something I would do most of the time. Everything else gets in the way of writing—making a living, maintaining relationships and kinships, eating, hygiene, activities of daily living, etc.

Like I say, writing is the best way to fill the doing-nothing void. Writing empowers me, jumpstarts me, reboots me, infuses me with bodily energies, electrifies my spirit.

Writing gets me from point A to point Z when all else fails.

Among the thousands of large and small regrets I carry around, the major regret is this: Look at all the time I have misused by not writing.

You see, writing has an eerie effect on me (and I am not the only writer who knows this). It forces me to ignore the obvious and concentrate on the important.

When spontaneous, joyful writing is taking place, living becomes effortless. No kidding!

So, do writers know these things when they first begin writing? Nope. Knowledge and wisdom flow only after much, much writing has taken place over a long period of time. But it does come. And you won’t know this fact, you won’t share this wisdom with me and other writers, until you have put in the time.

All dedicated writers know the same thing: Each of us has to wend our own way, find our own special way to write. In order to do this, the writer first has to realize there is no Big Secret. As Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Maugham’s message is clear to all us writers. There is no magic formula. Best use your time writing rather than talking about writing.

Another quote from a master: Lillian Hellman said, “If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves.”

Sometimes writers, be they aspiring or professional, can get their muse revved up simply by thumbing through a couple of pages of books by real writers. The three books I recommend most are “How to Become Your Own Book” by Jim Reed; “Zen and the Art of Writing” by Ray Bradbury; “On Writing” by Stephen King. We writers can’t tell you how to write, but we can most certainly, with just a few words, swat your muse on the fanny and cry out, “Just write!”

As Groucho Marx once said, “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them…well, I have others.” These are my ideas and thoughts for today. If you don’t like them I do have others.

Get on with it, my friend. You’ll be overjoyed when it actually works

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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The Sandpaper Razor Meets the Theo A Koch Barber Kid

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The Sandpaper Razor Meets the Theo A Koch Barber Kid

I’m riding the Theo A Koch automatic barber chair, watching the barber foot-pump his metal and leather instrument higher so that he can get at my neck, the neck of eight-year-old me. He has already draped my shoulders and torso in a checkered cloth to keep the hairs he’s about to trim from hiding under my clothes and making me all itchy.

The barber is efficiently cutting away while continuing his running conversations with various customers who sit in a long row of chairs facing the Theo A Koch chair. They talk of fishing and hunting and politics and street repair while thumbing through current issues of magazines like Argosy, Esquire, Field and Stream, Collier’s, Look, Life, Saturday Evening Post.

The shop smells of old cologne and talcum and working class sweat.

I squirm impatiently while the barber plies his trade, his scissors and electric trimmer flashing in the sunbeams that cause the rotating candy cane pole to cast its shadow across my shoes. I gaze at my shoes because I’m required to lower my head while lather is applied to my neck. I read and re-read the Theo A Koch brand name embossed in nickel plated sheen between my feet. The freshly-stropped straight razor makes sandpaper sounds. I cringe, waiting for the barber’s hand to slip. It never does. But it might.

What is that after-shave perfume the barber laves on my neck? What is the name of the talcum powder he dusts on my neck to ease the fresh-shave sting? I don’t understand the ritual of shave and talcum and fragrance and hair tonic, but I do know that I will not feel like I’ve really had a haircut unless I walk away smelling like something other than a real eight-year-old lad.

The barber dramatically takes away the checkered cloth the way Dracula might swirl his cape. I take my feet off the Theo A Koch brand. The shoeshine man swish-brooms the back of my shirt in an elegant gesture of manners and politeness. I walk past the rotating candy cane pole and onto the sunny streets of downtown Tuscaloosa, a brand-new kid ready to face a brand-new afternoon.

I don’t know whether the magazine-thumbing grownups ever tip the barber, though they do tip the shiner of shoes. Kids are not expected to tip, so I get to spend my extra dime across the street at Woolworth’s for the best bag of popcorn I will ever eat…until the next haircut

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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The Writer Goes Around Tattletelling

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THE WRITER GOES AROUND TATTLETELLING TATTLETALES

I am a tattletale.

Can’t help it. I tell tales, but I also in the process rat on people.

I out you and your foibles, vices, beauty, shallowness, brilliance.

I sneak my pen around the page when you are not looking, and immortalize your idiosyncracies and your heroism.

I am a transcriptionist.

I copy you down and tell others things you may not know about yourself.

I tell things you wish I’d keep secret.

I praise you when you don’t even recognize your praiseworthiness.

I describe you so accurately you can’t even recognize yourself in the story.

I tell on other people and you suspect I’m talking about you.

Sometimes you are jealous of me.

Sometimes you secretly admire what I do and wish you knew my secret.

This flabbergasts me, because I don’t know my secret—

I just write and let the fingers and the page and the pen and the gut and the heart tell all.

If I try to force myself to write, it’s like trying to squeeze toothpaste from a flattened, spent tube.

If I try to backtrack and edit or expurgate and obliterate what I’ve written, it’s like trying to fill an empty tube with toothpaste. It’s always too late. What’s written is written.

I am a tattletale, but nobody escapes me. I can’t even stop writing things about myself that I don’t want you to know. It’s always too late.

I out everything when I write.

I tell the future, I look back to the future, I tell the past, I look forward to the past.

I am a writer.

I fictionalize the truth.

I spy the truth in fictions.

No matter how I write it, it comes out true, it comes forth as truth.

I write because I can’t lie.

I write because somebody has to tell the truths that only I can tell.

I am a writer, and I can’t go back and change that fact

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Painful Thoughts of Bugs Bunny and Other Smart Remarkers

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Painful Thoughts of Bugs Bunny and Other Smart Remarkers

Pain is what you don’t expect. Surprise!

Surprise can be painful; pain is always surprising.

Pain is what you anticipate and anticipate and anticipate.

Didn’t Billy Shakespeare say, “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once.” I guess that means cowards tend to allow their imaginations to get the best of them. Valiant people must be deeply into avoidance in order to survive.

Relief comes from finding out that what you anticipated isn’t as bad as you expected.

Pain is all in your head.

Wait…

Pain is all in your body.

OK, pain is everywhere in your body and your head, it’s just that some pains are more extreme than other pains, so the body does a kind of prioitizing—the most resounding pain is the pain you have to deal with to the exclusion of all other pecking-order pains. The tiniest pain gets the least attention, but is the tiniest pain always the least important pain?

Level of pain does not seem to have much to do with degree of danger. A hangnail can be excruciating, but how often is it life-threatening?

“He died of hangnail pain, poor S.O.B.”

As Bugs Bunny once said, “Pain hurts!”

Why will I do anything to avoid pain, even if that specific pain has little to do with degree of danger?

Walking barefoot across loose gravel is enormously painful, but will it kill me?

“He died of barefoot gravel-walking, poor S.O.B.”

Since this whole subject is painful, I think I’ll change the subject.

Avoidance can be a great pain-manager.

For me, it’s probably the only pain-manager.

Avoidance is a way of life, and it can work wonders, especially when you find it impossible to deal with the reality of things.

I recommend avoidance whenever possible.

I never recommend pain

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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The Day the Pocket in My Pants Started Talking to Me

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The Day the Pocket in My Pants Started Talking to Me

Sometimes, when least expected, my pants talk to me.

This happens without any effort on my part.

I’m sitting shotgun at the end of a row of other jazz lovers, listening to a large group of young musicians making music, and I am in thrall. Enthralled. Enraptured. That is, until I hear an annoying but familiar voice making comments about love, life and laughter. I look around to see who’s talking out of place. Nobody. But the voice continues. It is coming from my left pants-pocket, where rests the tiny audio recording device I use to make notes when pen and pad are nowhere to be found.

The voice is my own.

The device has somehow turned itself on, and now I’ve got to squirm quickly, dig down past datebook and cash, and try to retrieve the thing. It is still going on with its internal dialogue. I grab it, bring it out and smash my finger against the OFF button. Fortunately, most of the people around me are still wondering about the source of the voice—they haven’t pinpointed my pants yet.

The evening is saved.

From this day forth, I punch the fail-safe switch after each verbal note, hoping it won’t happen again.

But, my pants being haunted, or the recorder being haunted, the dang thing still switches itself on now and then…but only to entertain me. My disembodied electronic muse has a mind of its own, and I kind of like the fact that, like a two-year-old, it tries to get my attention at unexpected and appropriate times.

In fact, were it not for the notes residing in my pants pocket, this little piece of writing would not have occurred. The first line says it all, and I dutifully write it down. The voice speaks loudly and says THE DAY THE POCKET IN MY PANTS STARTED TALKING TO ME.

Like most diligent writers, I obey my muse and start writing, my pants creating what you just read

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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The Day the Bride Considered Ordering a Hit on the Groom

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The Day the Bride Considered Ordering a Hit on the Groom

Walking down the isle arm in arm with Dad was the scariest, most exhilarating experience  of her life so far. As she approached the priest and the groom, all she could think about was The Ring and what lay beyond. The Ring would make her the happiest she might ever be, The Ring and all it stood for…what a gigantic leap that would be. She was so excited she simply could not imagine what would be on the other side of this moment, the moment after the ring would rest secure and properly embrace her finger.

The groom, watching his lovely wife-to-be floating closer and closer, was doubly excited today. His bride expected to wear The Ring, but he had come up with something even better, something more enduring, more representative of the modern world in which they would live together. And she would be even more impressed with him because of his ingenuity, his leap of genius.

The ceremony was a blur, during which no-one thankfully grew hoarse or stumbled or stuttered. The priest said, “The ring, please,” or something like that. Later, sitting in her cell, she would not remember the exact words.

The groom, his ear-to-ear smile lighting up the chapel, pulled from his pocket a small electronic device and turned it on, holding it up for all to see. The image on the screen was three-dimensional, clearly focused, high-resolutioned, state-of-the art in futuristic quality. The image was that of The Ring.

The priest’s brow furrowed, the bride looked a bit dazed, the groom proudly explained, “This is the ultimate symbol of my love for you. This image is permanent, can never be lost (it will remain safe in The Cloud forever), can be laser printed and framed to go over our living room mantel.” He took a deep breath, beaming his pride. “So I give you this image in place of a mere ring, making you the first bride to embrace the future of 21st Century technology, making the mere physical object of a metal ring obsolete and unnecessary.”

The bride’s voice quavered, “Where is the ring?” The groom began repeating his explanation but never finished because at that moment the bride pulled a revolver from her bouquet and…

The Lover of Books was enjoying the surprise birthday party thrown together by his family and friends, and now came gift-opening time. Each package contained a book, since his wife had notified everybody in advance that books made him happier than any gift you could think up. There were big books, small books, new books, ancient books, profound books, gag books, readable books, and he dived into each package as if Christmas were here.

Then, one old friend handed him his final present. A Kindle. An electronic book that would make all his other gifts meaningless and obsolete, his friend explained, quite proud of his brilliance and predictive genius.

The Lover of Books looked at the electronic object as if it were a brown shoe floating in a punch bowl at the Senior Prom. He glanced over at the pile of books he was looking forward to thumbing through, skimming, marking, bookmarking, highlighting, feeling, smelling, storing bits of note cards and confetti within, securely stacking around him like a fortress against the vulgarities of the 21st Century.

The friend was so pumped up about his profundity at giving this plastic and metal gift that he did not notice the Lover of Books reaching into the desk drawer and pulling forth a revolver

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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The Importance of Not Reading Being So Cool

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The Importance of Not Reading Being So Cool

“So, what are you reading these days?” I ask a ten-year-old customer at the shop. He is accompanied by an avid-reader sister and parents who are enjoying digging through tons of books.

“Uh, I don’t read,” he proudly announces, working hard to look cool and macho at the same time.

“You mean you can’t read at all?” I ask, faking sympathy.

“Er, no, I know how to read,” he replies a bit disdainfully.

“He knows how to read, he just doesn’t like to read,” his nearby sister explains patiently, thumbing through a Nancy Drew book.

“So, you don’t read anything?” I persist, knowing that what he really means is that he reads everything he wants to read, but never in the form of a book, which would not be cool.

He doesn’t know how to answer, so I say, “You did not read street signs on the way over, to find out where you are…you don’t read anything on the internet…you don’t read video game instructions…you don’t text or facebook or tweet…you don’t read comic books…you don’t read the sports page to see what your favorite team is doing?”

He admits he does read these things.

“Then, I guess what you mean is that you just don’t read books, right?”

He nods.

“OK. Follow me for a second,” I engage his gaze and trap him for a moment or two. “What would happen if you hard-copied everything you read this week–you know what a hard copy is?” He nods, a little hypnotized now. “Then,” I continue, “What if you made a hard copy of each and every thing you read and placed it in a stack after seven days. Do you think the stack would be about this thick?” I measure out 1 1/2 inches with thumb and finger. He agrees that’s about right.

“Well, if you took that stack of paper to Kinko’s and asked them to bind it together with hard covers, that would be what we call a Book.”

He gets it, I can tell.

“So…you read at least one book a week…so you do read books!” I smile. His parents are paying attention but hiding this fact from the boy. It’s obvious they have tried to work through this with him in various ways but have never thought of the “book” approach.

I smile again and say, “Thanks for reading books. They are quite fun to read!” He kind of relaxes and continues to wander the shop. His sister is grinning. And I relax because I can see that he is not offended or embarrassed—thank goodness! A fine line to walk.

As I head to the front of the shop to assist other customers, I quote Mark Twain to his sister and parents because it’s my store and I can do things like this: “A man who doesn’t read has no advantage over a man who can’t read.”

I know—I’m a tad overbearing. But dang it, I just have to sermonize now and again.

By the way, this happens at least twice a week in the shop. Sometimes it’s a forty-something man who brags about never reading books, once in a blue moon it’s a young girl, but the scenario is always the same—someone brags about never reading books as if it is the politically correct thing to do in the modern South. And I, the avid bookseller, try to demonstrate in various ways that books are everywhere in every form, ready to be read, even if they are in no way called books

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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