Saturday, July 16, 2005

The subject was Wal-Mart: Stripping PotterMania! of the !

Mrs. Meridian and I are deeply in love, but as with all deeply-in-love couples, on some things we simply DO NOT see eye to eye. One of those things is the notion of spectacle and its appreciation. And, as the title of this post indicates, last night this issue reared its nightmarish head, causing us to lose rather more sleep than either of us would have wished.
I happen to like spectacle in the abstract, the idea that it is the people present at certain events, and not merely that event's ostensible subject, that actually make the event an Event (or, for that matter, an Event!). She doesn't. Simple as that. With only one exception that comes to mind has she attended an Event, and that was a couple of years before we met.
So: We come to last night. Mrs. Meridian and I both think highly of the Harry Potter books, and so yesterday afternoon she suddenly expressed the desire to get a copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince so as to be assurred of getting a 1st edition. I called up the Barnes & Noble nearby; they assurred me that they would have plenty of copies for sale even if we hadn't reserved one, and so Mrs. Meridian and I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening intermittently talking in funny voices about PotterMania!, HermioneHysteria!, DumbledoreDelirium!, and, in keeping with the alliterative theme we'd established, PotterPandemonium!
Here, a word about !s. We know those things are called exclamation points, but I suspect we don't often give much thought to the fact that they can convey a wide range of meanings. Here are just two examples of what I mean:

Absalom, Absalom! (Meaning: the title of Faulkner's heartbreaking novel makes indirect reference to one of its central plot elements, a father's loss of his beloved son; the exclamation point thus is an expression of profound grief.)

Oklahoma! (Meaning (depending on one's taste): "Wow-wee!" or as an indication of incredulity ("Who would think Oklahoma would be worthy of a musical about it?") . . . in which case I'd argue that, at the very least, a question mark is missing from the title.)

To my mind, PotterMania!'s ! conveys an unironic, unqualified "Wow-wee!" That also happens to be Mrs. Meridian's opinion. We think it's cool that all these poeple are making all this fuss about a BOOK. We think they might, like, later on, you know, realize that bookstores have OTHER books they might conceivably be interested in. That's the same argument, by the way, that I use in support of Oprah's Book Club, but that's another story.
Comes the witching hour, and we drive over to Barnes & Noble. The only time I've seen the lot more full has been during Christmas shopping season during the day time, and that is because a Toys-R-Us is next door to it. Barnes & Noble (and, yes, the Borders on down the road) understand and, of course, help foment PotterMania! with costume contests, fortune-telling, free Harry Potter glasses, etc. All that is good for sales, I understand. But more philosophically, I also understand that spectacle derives its value to a greater or lesser degree not from the thing itself but from the fact that a group of people gathered there that day say it has value. PotterMania! wouldn't exist if it were not for J. K. Rowling's books, but it also wouldn't exist if there were not many, many, many people saying that those books matter, no matter what booksellers might offer in the way of Fun.
So. Mrs. Meridian, you recall from the beginning of this post, doesn't like spectacle because it involves Crowds. She took one look at the parking lot and said, "We won't have to wait at Wal-Mart." And so we were off.
As long-time readers of this blog know, Wal-Mart and my take on its philosophy have been the subject of several posts here. Implicit in those posts is my sense that Wal-Mart is driven not by respect for its customers or for its workers or for the local economy or for the surrounding landscape but only by regard not just for its survival but for its utter domination of the buying conscience of the people. Wal-Mart is a soul-less, mirthless place, utterly devoid of any intent to make its customers' stay a pleasant one; it is a 100,000-square-foot convenience store whose size and selection and service offered are manifestations of the name of a convenience store I remember seeing once as a kid: "Git It 'n' Go." Gladly.
And so, here follows how the Wal-Mart we visited played its part in PotterMania!: a pallet stacked with the books, guarded by an employee wearing the ubiquitous blue vest, black fingerless gauntlets on his hands that are reminiscent of the protection that carpal-tunnel patients wear after surgery, a black t-shirt, and black cargo pants whose legs sported 2-foot flairs. No countdown to 12:01; he just removed the paper and started passing out books to those in line. Decidedly NOT PotterMania!; not even PotterMania--or, for that matter, Pottermania. The whole thing was no different from watching the stockers uncrate paper towels . . . which, in Wal-Mart's zeitgeist, amounts to much the same thing.

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