Earlier this week, I wrote about the novel White Noise and how some of its themes from 1985 apply today, with the unfolding of the Ebola epidemic.
“The flow is constant,” Alfonse said. “Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphs, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else.”
– Don DeLillo
I lent the book to a co-worker who left Starbucks to work at Amazon, and never gave it back. When I got the idea for the post this week, I had to buy another copy of the book, and imagined driving downtown, paying for parking, taking time off from work — instead, I went to Amazon.
I’m not one to do this, because I like shopping in stores. Once I got to Amazon, one book purchase turned into four (which also happens in stores). And for the first time, I checked out their used copies.
The idea of a virus spreading and buying a book from someone I would never meet over the Internet had a poetic quality to it, so I went for a copy described as “Acceptable.”
I don’t mind the wrinkles in the cover or the softened edges, but as I thumbed through it, I found notes and annotations from the previous owner, themes revealed right there in my hands, the writer picked at with a scalpel.
It’s not much different than buying the edition with notes and criticism as a foreword, which I’ll rarely read — but in this case, I have no choice.
In the back of the book there’s a receipt with the location it was purchased and the date, 1999. The same handwriting on the receipt, ‘Friday 5 PM’ written at the bottom. The handwriting is careful and elegant, likely a woman’s. So now I re-read White Noise through the eyes of a woman, who’s following it through the eyes of a professor which you can tell by the notes, that sound academic.
And now, the story of the woman who owned the copy of White Noise I bought on Amazon, who’s probably from Eugene, Oregon, why she sent it to Amazon for resale, likely with boxes of other books, maybe moving out or thinning out her past, getting on with her life (or broke, hooked on dope).
How handwriting is so personal and yet, this person is any person to me, and no one at all. Imagining meeting her, and tracking her down, which is not unthinkable on the Internet, leveraging the mad technology DeLillo foresaw as turning us inside-out, fracturing our attention, relationships, our sense of humanity: then, through a TV set — now, through different boxes and hand-held portals.
I wrote the story in my head walking down the street at work, and watched as two women approached me from the opposite direction, walking together or apart, it wasn’t clear, and I wondered, would they walk right into me or into a pallet of boxes on the sidewalk, but they sensed my presence at the very last second and swerved out of the way. It seems everyone is somewhere else, I wrote. Only a catastrophe gets our attention.