Jun. 23rd, 2017

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Perhaps this is a characteristic of buying books in London, or perhaps a characteristic of me, but the moment of exchange - the money for the book across the counter - has rarely been accompanied by discussion.

I remember the last anomaly before recent times: I was purchasing a large format tome explaining how to use 'Windows ME', and Terry Eagleton's "Literary Theory: An Introduction''. I agreed with the employee that if neither volume were helpful on their stated subjects, I should simply swap them around: the literary critic helping me work my pc, the low-tech consumer manual offering insights into theme and structure in the written narrative. It was a rewarding interaction.

Since then, many years had passed until the next exchange, but from a certain point, I don't know why, they come thick and fast - the most recent last week.

First. The cashier lights up at sight of the cover, and asks me if I've read the author's other novel - she had and considered it excellent. I say I haven't, but that I'd seen one of her films. Now we both look confused, because I didn't think she had published a novel in addition to that now before us, and the cashier appears puzzled at suggestion the writer made movies. With a queue behind me we leave it at that, but it's an unsatisfying moment, I expect for both of us.

Second. The cashier clouds over, in fact becomes stormy, at the sight of the cover, and mutters more to the counter than to me: 'Hateful book'. I feel I should respond, if only to acknowledge her remark: I ask 'What didn't you like about it?' To which she spits in response: 'I haven't read it!'. As if I had accused her of the same sin I am clearly about to commit. As she gives me my change she has the irritably breathless demeanour of someone who has just needlessly run up a long flight of stairs, and is now in the presence of the inventor of steps. So I did not seek to prolong the encounter.

Third. The cashier beams at the four books, then at me, and exclaims: 'All women writers!'. She does so in a tone normally accompanied by delivery of a pat on the head, or a biscuit, or both. I consider expressing mild surprise at this commonality in my purchases, but conclude I cannot do so convincingly. Instead I seek refuge in my blandest smile. Esprit d'escalier supplies me with me with variously (in)appropriate responses all the way home, and intermittently since.

I should be more positive about this outbreak of lively point-of-sale discourse. After all, what are books but communication itself? A stimulating, positive discussion could have followed each of the above exchanges. But it didn't, and if it carries on like this I will end up reduced to mail order.

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