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Paperless Society

May 20, 2010

When I visited Chicago in 2006, I booked a hotel room in Oak Park, Illinois.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that Earnest Hemingway was born in Oak Park and that Frank Lloyd Wright built his first home and studio there.

When I stumbled out into the rich mid-century culture the morning after I arrived, my travel plans changed.  I toured the Victorian Hemingway birthplace and Wright’s Unity Temple.  I walked the tree-lined streets and visited the friendly boutiques.  But my best experience was in the gift shop of the Hemingway Museum.

The store occupied an unwanted corner of the museum.  Cabinets and racks were stuffed in at odd angles and filled with Hemingway books, visors, fanny packs and trinkets.  The shopkeeper’s name was Cindi.  She was warm and personable, asking where I was from and what brought me to the museum.  She seemed like a kindred-spirit to me.  So I was uncharacteristically chatty.  I said that I liked to buy unique or locally made souvenirs while on vacation.  She pointed out T-shirts, mugs and other logoed items that I could only purchase in the gift shop.  I did my best to mask my condescension: “That’s not quite what I was looking for.”

Cindi took another glance around the store.  With great exasperation, she pointed and said, “If you would buy those, I would be eternally grateful.”

She was pointing at large, decorative, fake books.  They were made to resemble worn-out leather, with gilt titles on their functionless binding edges.  Both claimed to be Hemingway, of course.  One was Me: Without Women, which I’ve not read; the other A Farewell to Arms, which I have.  The artist who created the books had obviously never seen an actual copy of A Farewell to Arms.  The fake book’s size could hold 8-1/2” x 11” pages and was three inches thick; Farewell would need to be illustrated and printed with a 24 point font to fill such a tome.

Cindi’s open hostility had chased the illiterate books to the top of a curio cabinet like a beagle cornering a calico.  “They don’t even have the decency to be book boxes,” she said.  “They’re just made for some yuppy to put them on their empty bookshelves to take up space and look literate.”

I suppose I had the accessory-lover’s equivalent of finding a kitten on his doorstep.  They were so helpless up there.  And obviously unloved.  I had to have them.

Cindi’s eyes twinkled as she rang up the sale.  I looked at the books with an amused pride, having rescued them from being put down.  But I wasn’t quite sure what I would do with them.  I considered possible uses for large, light books.

“You know,” I said, “a theatre company might be able to make use of these.”

Cindi stopped, dumbfounded.  “They might,” she said, “and I belong to a theatre company.”  This revelation threw her beleaguered books into a new light; she seemed to swim in the possibilities of what might have been.

“But I’d have to see the despicable things all the time then,” she said, resuming a hard line.

So I got to buy a pair of useless yuppy fake books.  They are proudly stacked on the hearth of my disused fireplace.

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