I started reading about modern warfare in elementary school and have kept at it steadily for more than five decades. One result, which I began to notice back in the 1970s, is that military thinking has become the default setting in my brain. Battlefield diaries and the memoirs of former combatants are filled with lessons that can be applied to many situations in the everyday world, including service behind the counter at Annie Bloom’s Books.
From my ‘front line’ point of view, a bookstore is much like an observation post. My co-workers and I are all looking for clues about trends and topics that motivate customers as they browse the shelves. I also think what we do here is similar to map reading. By talking with people one by one, learning about personal histories, subjects of interest, and book preferences, we’re slowly tracing the contour lines of modern American life.
I’m not kidding about any of this and I’m not trying to trivialize military life. War is horrific, and there are many books available that present vivid and memorable examples of this fact. Two that I recommend are Matterhorn, a novel about Vietnam by Karl Marlantes, and The Good Soldiers by David Finkel, a non-fiction account of what happened to one group of Army troops during their deployment in Iraq.
One of the main characters in Matterhorn is Lieutenant Mellas, who takes pride in his map reading abilities but is angered and frustrated on patrols because the maps he’s using are often vague or incomplete. This isn’t surprising when you think about how difficult it would be to accurately survey such vast areas of jungle wilderness. The big question every patrol leader wrestles with as the troops move through the thick vegetation is, “Where exactly ARE we right now?”
I was talking with one of our regular customers recently because he was looking at a book of maps, and as our conversation progressed I found out he served in Vietnam as a forward observer for an artillery unit. For those not familiar with this job, the ‘FO’ is the person out in the battle zone who looks at a map, decides where the shells are going to hit, and then calls the people firing the guns and tells them which coordinates to aim for.
When I asked him about the accuracy of the maps he said, diplomatically, “Some were better than others.”
A quick note here—the abbreviation ‘FO’ is distinctly different from ‘FOB,’ which means ‘Forward Operating Base.’ An FOB in Baghdad is the focus of a new novel by David Abrams based on his own experiences in the Iraq war. The writing is sharp and often scathingly humorous, the title is FOBBIT, and the definition of that term can be found on the book’s cover.
“Where are we now?” is a huge question for many other nations at this moment. One hopeful sign I’ve observed firsthand is a lot of young Americans taking a strong interest in doing their own personal surveys of cultural topography throughout the world. I spoke with one of them a few weeks ago, a student in his mid-20s who speaks Arabic and has visited more than two dozen countries.
The discussion began when I asked him about the interesting ring he was wearing. It was purchased, he said, in Iraq. Then he went on to tell me about the Kurdish region where he’d spent most of his visit. The descriptions of religious and ethnic diversity were fascinating and filled with details that never make the nightly news roundups. He’d also been in Syria during the spring talking with a wide range of average citizens about what direction they thought was best for that country. He’s currently in a Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago and plans to visit Tunisia soon.
I’m hoping to keep in touch with this traveler and won’t be surprised if he eventually writes a book, or several of them, about his observations. If that happens I will definitely schedule him for an author appearance. The stories he can tell definitely need to be shared with a wider audience.
So it goes at my observation post behind the counter. I enjoy surveying the human landscape, finding out where we’ve all been, how we made it this far and sometimes, if I ask the right question, there will be a glimpse of the territory ahead.
Jeffrey Shaffer is a bookseller at Annie Bloom’s Books in the historic Multnomah Village district of southwest Portland. His relationship with Annie Bloom’s began in the 1990′s when the store’s booksellers enthusiastically sold his two humor collections I’m Right Here, Fish-Cake and It Came With the House. Last November he joined the staff and discovered that selling books can be just as interesting as the writing process.