What?

The brief story of the liberation of a Dave Eggers classic.

My lunch breaks at the office can go one of two ways.  If I’m hungry, which invariably means I skipped breakfast, I either grab a sandwich from Subway, or participate in whatever ill-conceived delivery order my colleagues are assembling.  If I have had a substantial breakfast, however, I tend to use my break to take a walk.  There is a beautiful three-mile path that makes a large rectangle around my office, skirting the water, a park, and, less fortunately, a highway.

Today was one of those walking lunches, and on the erstwhile homestretch, I happened past a used bookstore.  My general approach to this stretch of sidewalk is to carefully avert my eyes, because they have an outdoor bargain rack, and a used bookstore is like flypaper; I get stuck, and have a very hard time leaving.

Resolved to pass by this tempting display without breaking stride, I permitted myself a brief glance at the rack, and that’s where I saw it.

Dave Eggers “What is the What,” one of my favorite books.  Sitting on the top shelf.  The shelf marked “all books fifty cents.”

For those of you unfamiliar, Dave Eggers is among the best writers still producing.  He belongs, loosely, in the Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides school of smart, witty, and engaging writers.  I own, and have read, all of his novels so far, and I am  yet to be disappointed.  “What is the What” is a story about one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” and explores his experience escaping Southern Sudan as well as his acclimation to life in America, his new home.  It is not just good- it is a future classic.

Now, for the past  year or so I have been on a very strict diet of “no new books,” a reluctant acquiescence driven by the twin factors of my lack of shelf space, and my current horde of over one hundred yet-to-be-read novels.  It has taken discipline, but I am slowly whittling down my to-read list, and hope to have it fully under control sometime this century.

For that reason, I resist the urge to purchase new books, even if they’re great, and even if I have been looking for them for a long time.  So ordinarily, purchasing a book I already own- in the same edition, no less- would be unthinkable.

That said, I had a funny reaction to seeing such a great literary marvel listed at such an absurdly low price: I became angry.  Angry at the store for undervaluing this important work, and even more angry at the throngs of people who must have passed by this same shelf and determined, through their inaction, that this book was not worth two quarters.

My brisk walk was at a full halt, my mind was processing these emotions of surprise, anger, and disbelief, when suddenly a single thought intruded to break my internal stalemate: the holidays are coming up in just a few weeks, and I haven’t begun my shopping.

With this realization, I resolved to liberate What is the What from its undeserving bookstore, and from the anonymous fools who failed to snatch it up at such an absurd price.  It is in my bag now, awaiting gifting designation.  Of course, there is always a chance its future recipient will have read this post, and will know that the precious gem I am giving them was acquired for half a buck.  To that future contingent reader, I say only this: “What is the What” is one of the best, most worthwhile stories out there, and it almost felt like theft to obtain it for such a ridiculous price.

And to the owner of the used bookstore on Bell Boulevard, who parted with this classic for so little coin, I have only a single question, nay, a single word to pose to you:

What?

~Andrew

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Published in: on November 15, 2013 at 2:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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