I received a gift certificate for my birthday. It was for Barnes and Noble, a "bookstore." Some of you may not be familiar with such things, as they are becoming as scarce as "video stores," which would require a whole separate discussion about things like "physical media" and "DVDs" and so on. I was in Barnes and Noble to buy books, since that was probably the intent of my brother-in-law when he put that little plastic card in an envelope and wrote my name on it. A very considerate act, and not just because he spelled my name correctly, but because it meant I could go forward with the process of selecting just the right reading material for myself, rather than having that awkward moment of deciding how to accept a gift that might be resting on my dresser for several months without cracking the spine. I could pick the book or books that I wanted to read.
I did not pick the books that I should be reading. I walked past hefty tomes of classical literature and manuals on how to fix this or that real or imagined problem and went straight to the Stephen King shelf. Shelves. Maine's Master Of the Macabre holds down two and a half shelves, with just a copy or two each of his dozens of titles, most of which I have already purchased and consumed in the style of fast food, a comparison the author himself has made. In the summertime, I eat more cheeseburgers. I read Stephen King.
Somewhere on those vertical feet of possibilities, I found what I was looking for: the sequel to the book that began my summer vacation. In paperback, which meant that I still had credit left over to buy another volume or two, depending on where I looked next. I considered turning just a degree or two and finding the third book in the Bill Hodges trilogy, but since it was recently released, it would have meant going over my allowance. It occurred to me then that if I went home and navigated the B&N website that I could probably have downloaded both stories in some cyber-version that I could negotiate on to one of the electronic devices we have hanging around our home, but being the son of a printing salesmen who spent a summer or two working in a bindery amid the roar of printing presses, I remain attached to the physical ink and paper.
I walked over to the Humor shelves, and stared at the titles, many of them written by comedians I recognized and I wondered if I would enjoy reading a couple hundred pages of their comedy bits after enjoying their standups or sitcoms. I picked up a few of these and opened them to scan a random page or two. Amused, but not captivated, on I moved. There had to be another book out there that could capture my attention, one that friends and family had been telling me that I should read.
But that was what I was trying to avoid: Should.
I found myself standing in front of the clearance table. All items marked with a red dot were fifty percent off. There were plenty of authors that I did not recognize, with glossy covers that had once been big sellers and were now part of the inventory purge. Mixed in with these disparate books were a number of impulse items: toys, for lack of a better term. Book lights and pop culture artifacts, including a twelve-inch action poseable Walter White action figure, complete with Heisenberg hat and shades.
I did the math in my head. If I bought the Stephen King and the Breaking Bad toy, the total would come within pennies of the amount of my gift card. The cashier reminded me that since the action figure was a clearance item, there would be no exchanges or refunds.
That's okay. It was a gift.