Powell’s Bookmarks: On Leaving Portland

A few weeks ago, I re-watched the 2002 Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze movie Adaptation, which seemed to be playing at the local cinema as part of a Nicholas Cage retrospective. Cage plays the screenwriter Kaufman as he struggles to adapt Susan Orlean’s mesmerizing book The Orchid Thief into a movie. The structure of the book, described as “that sprawling, New Yorker crap that doesn’t really go anywhere,” does not lend itself easily to a film adaptation. During one of Kaufman’s attempts to start the screenplay, he describes an opening scene that stretches from the beginning of the earth to his birth in mid-twentieth century Los Angeles. Finding a plot (as a verb, to make plans; as a noun, a patch of solid ground) in this sprawling life—that does not really go anywhere—is one of those mammoth mammal tasks that appears so insurmountable that someone invented the snooze button on alarm clocks just so we could ignore this responsibility and return to sleep for a few more precious minutes. I am reminded of the thoughts of Blaise Pascal as he tried to describe this condition:

“We are floating in a medium of vast extent, always drifting uncertainly, blown to and fro; whenever we think we have a fixed point to which we can cling and hold fast, it shifts and leaves us behind; if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips away, and flees eternally before us.”

We are trapped between the infinitely large and infinitesimally small, engulfed by the impenetrable secrecy of life. I suppose it is no wonder that people like bookmarks:  to know that you have a place somewhere in the enormity of everything. Considered in this light, dog-earing the top corner of a page is forgivable. You wish to leave a trace of yourself in the copy of a book that left an impression—evanescent or indelible—on your mind and heart.

I promised my mother I would not buy any more books until I returned to England. Back in September 2015, I expected to live in Portland for no more than a year. One of the two suitcases for my first transatlantic flight to Oregon was crammed with books, and I assumed that they would easily satisfy me for a year. I was wrong.

From what I recall, I broke my promise within the first week. The irresistible temptation came from a David Shields’ novel called Dead Languages, which I bought at the famous Powell’s City of Books. When the transaction was complete, the cashier slipped a complementary Powell’s bookmark between the front cover and the title page. The bookmark bears the addresses and contact information of each Powell’s branch on one side, and, on the other, lists their “buying hours” and implores you to “sell us your books.” During my frequent visits, I have spotted several people with cardboard boxes full of books which they hope to exchange for a wallet-wad of dollars.

Art by Maskull Lasserre

I am leaving Portland soon. Every so often, I look at the messy piles of books in my apartment then glance at a nearby Powell’s bookmark to check their buying hours. You must book an appointment for an employee to sift through your books and decide whether anything is worth enough money to take off your hands and sell in the store. I think that process discourages me. I could not bear the humiliation of standing in public while someone judges my literary taste before they hand me a few dollars for two boxes of books. Walter Benjamin observed astutely in his breathtaking essay “Unpacking My Library” that “to the book collector . . . the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves,” so I am reluctant to return half of my collection to the coercion of commerce. They will become just another commodity to be repriced, reshelved, and resold.

Luckily, the other half of my collection will endure and travel with me. Unlike Benjamin, I am still in the stage of packing my library—choosing the right volumes and facing the Tetris-esque challenge of fitting them neatly into boxes. Some of them still contain their Powell’s bookmark, ready to help me find and keep my place.

The history of the bookmark takes place inside the history of the book. Before the Big Bang of the Gutenberg Galaxy, books were rare and written by a meticulous scribe. The rarity of these texts, writes A.W. Coysh in his 1974 Collecting Bookmarks, demonstrated the “need for some device to mark the place in a book . . . Without bookmarkers, finely bound volumes were at risk. To lay a book face down with pages open might cause injury to its spine, and the crease on a page that had the corner turned down remained as a lasting reproach.” One could put a bookmark between the pages and remove it without leaving a trace. Bookmarks used to be predominantly made with silk and leather, but, as the mass-publishing industry made books more available and affordable, they were made with cheaper material like thin card. The new availability of paperbacks meant that the bookmark became less of a way to protect the pages and spine of a book, and functioned more as an artificial memory aid. It anchored the reader in the text.

And so, I take another tome from my shelf and decide whether it is headed toward my new home or the Powell’s on Hawthorne. Just as every bookmark belongs in a book, every book belongs on a shelf. When I was younger, I dedicated hours to arranging my bedroom library in alphabetical order. Eventually, I ran out of space to organize them into neat rows. Stacks of randomly ordered books rose to the height of my wardrobe, and, occasionally, tumbled to the floor. Benjamin explains that one’s library maintains “a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.” Regardless of the obsessive order of your books (alphabetical, chronological, thematic), they will fall into a familiar disorder as soon as you take them off the shelf, place them in your lap, and forget to reshelve them according to their original arrangement. An excessively neat library is the mark of the unenthusiastic reader.

Right now, my library is neater than it has ever been. Two different piles for two different fates. Reflecting on his own library, Benjamin opines that the collector desires and respects singular copies of books rather than the book-in-itself. I have not possessed and read Shields’ Dead Languages, but only my own copy of that book. Each copy in these piles is a belonging that I have taken to the various houses and apartment buildings where I have lived over the past two years. Even though I paid the rent to put a roof over their spines, these tales and treatises formed a dwelling—as Benjamin put it, “with books as the building stones”—in which I found peace and purpose. It seemed that I belonged to them more than they belonged to me.

Installation by Alicia Martin

Copies of Dead Languages, Race Matters and Silent Spring that were once mine will soon fall into the hands of someone else. Like Don DeLillo writes in White Noise, “Maybe there is no death as we know it. Just documents changing hands.” Each book bears the bruises of previous owners: creases in the spine, smudges of dirty thumbs in the margins, a scribbled birthday message from a close friend on the title page. The history of the book encompasses the histories of each individual book and each individual reader. Whenever someone turns to a new page and starts to speak with that faint voice inside their head, they are alive. Maybe I will feel less remorse about taking my books to that desk in Powell’s if I understand that I am sharing the opportunity to feel alive with people I will never meet or know.

Once again, I move from one city of strangers to another. I doubt that I will make the same promise to my mother. We have both learnt that books overrule oaths. Speaking of my books, they’re all sorted into their separate boxes and addressed to different destinations. I am going to take them out tomorrow. One trip will take me to the Post Office; the other, Powell’s. I expect one last complementary bookmark. After all, I read a lot of books and I do not want to lose my place as I turn from page to page. I like to follow the plot wherever it goes in this sprawling, New Yorker-style crap of life. I fold over the corners of pages occasionally to remember where I have been and to remind myself to return there in the future. In this way, all the places I’ve been stay with me wherever I go.


In Defense of Laggardism




Car Seat Headrest, “Not What I Needed.”

Marshall McLuhan’s “Challenge and Collapse: The Nemesis of Creativity” appeared frequently on my graduate school seminar syllabi. My professors believed that it was a text that deserved to be read, revisited, and remembered. Occasionally, a passage from the text comes to me as I am thinking or writing. Finding the right quotation is like coming home to discover that someone else has cleaned your apartment, that someone else has already done the dirty work and put everything in the right place. Ironically, the following quotation is a quotation of a quotation of a quotation from the tale of an old Chinese Sage to Werner Heisenberg’s The Physicist’s Conception of Nature to McLuhan’s text itself:

“As Tzu-Gung was travelling through the regions north of the river Han, he saw an old man working in his vegetable garden. He had dug an irrigation ditch. The man would descend into a well, fetch up a vessel of water in his arms and pour it out into the ditch. While his efforts were tremendous the results appeared to be very meagre.
Tzu-Gung said, “There is a way whereby you can irrigate a hundred ditches in one day, and whereby you can do much with little effort. Would you not like to hear of it?” 
Then the gardener stood up, looked at him and said, “And what would that be?” Tzu-Gung replied, “You take a wooden lever, weighted at the back and light in front. In this way you can bring up water so quickly that it just gushes out. This is called a draw-well.”
Then anger rose up in the old man’s face, and he said, “I have heard my teacher say that whoever uses machines does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine, and he who carries the heart of a machine in his breast loses his simplicity. He who has lost his simplicity becomes unsure in the strivings of his soul. Uncertainty in the strivings of the soul is something which does not agree with honest sense. It is not that I do not know of such things; I am ashamed to use them.”


In 1962, Everett Rogers proposed a theory of the diffusion of innovation to explain the spread of an idea or invention through a society. The circulation of new thoughts or technologies involves five different types of people: the innovators, the early-adopters, the early majority, the late majority, and the laggards. Diffusion starts with the innovator who introduces an invention that appeals to the early-adopters, and then gradually becomes popular with the majorities. In terms of the market, the innovator is the entrepreneur; the adopters and majorities are the consumers.

So, where does that put the laggard? The laggard is usually classed as a traditionalist who refuses to abandon their old, less efficient ways in favor of the latest technology. Marketers do not bother to appeal to laggards, because it is not profitable to advertise to a demographic who are unlikely to buy the latest products. They are immune to hype. They will not settle for the lowest common denominator. The elderly gardener in Tzu-Gung’s tale personifies this laggard. Despite the obvious advantages of the draw-well, he prefers his outmoded methods and simple way of life.

So, what the hell is this gardener’s problem? What’s the harm in adopting a draw-well? Although the gardener accepts that he could irrigate ditches more quickly with a draw-well, he understands that using this invention would integrate him into a market that prioritizes efficiency over simplicity. As soon as he adopts this invention, the humble gardener becomes the industrial farmer. Forty-Six Indian farmers commit suicide every day; their hearts cannot endure their transformation into machines.

The laggard, much like the luddite, is often painted as a reactionary figure who reviles and resists progress: the old granny in the retirement home, the cantankerous codger in his vegetable garden, the rural recluse in an empty farmhouse… What possibilities are thought-leaders and marketers hiding behind these caricatures? Should we trust their definitions or propose an alternative?

Any alternative description of the laggard lies in defining freedom as the rejection of optimism. Rejecting optimism means knowing that the promise of the latest technologies will probably be broken, and contesting the platitude that better machines create a better world automatically. We live in a technocracy, where we are ruled by technology. Fun is no longer any fun. Innovation is no longer innovative. Customization obscures standardization. Everyone searches for different products on the same websites; everyone scrolls through different Facebook newsfeeds on the same screen. This is why people slobber over typewriters from the 1940s, dig their Gameboy cartridges out of boxes in the basement, and scribble handwritten letters to their new pen-pal. We are living in the future of technology, but it is so boring that we are desperate to return to the past. Laggardism compels us to find a way to approach technology without believing the hype of futurists and advertisers. Laggardism is a pessimistic futurism.

Admittedly, the alternative Laggard could be misconstrued as a bit of a spoilt brat. Complaining about one’s ability to afford and access new and efficient technology can seem trivial compared to the fact that many people in the U.S. do not have a reliable supply of clean water. Although it appears that these two problems differ in type and scale, they represent the same predicament. An anecdote from Henri Lefebvre’s masterpiece Critique of Everyday Life might help to prove this claim:

“Several years ago a world-wide firm which was trying to extend the market and put a rival firm out of business decided to distribute paraffin lamps to Chinese peasants free of charge, while its rivals, less ‘generous’ or less shrewd, went on selling them. And now in several million poverty-stricken Chinese households artificial light (an immense progress) shines down on muddy floors and rotten matting—because even peasants who cannot afford to buy a lamp can afford to buy paraffin…The ‘progress’ capitalism brings, like its ‘generosity,’ is just a means to an end: profit.”

The people of Flint, Michigan took pictures with their smartphones of the dirty water flowing out of their faucets. Immense progress can coexist with the most scandalous regression. Laggards are aware of this hypocrisy of progress. In fact, they would prefer a kind of progress that enables people to access clean water over one that attempts to relocate the global elite to a colony on Mars. Laggards do not feel much affection for these advancements that transport only the few to their destination of profit.

Silicon Valley, a contemporary synonym for “progress,” is entering a dangerous period in which it must introduce solutions to problems that it created (solving progress with more progress). Mark Zuckerberg puts “disputed” tags on Fake News stories which could not have gone viral without Facebook’s ‘Share’ feature; Elon Musk launches Neurolink to combat Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity. Eventually and inevitably, these solutions will become problems that will require new solutions. Every new solution must be greeted with a critical glare rather than open arms. We lose our freedom if we succumb to the optimism of innovation and early-adoption.

So, how does someone become a laggard? Let’s be realistic (et demandez l’impossible). Whether one subscribes to the philosophical tenets of Hobbes or Rousseau, no one possesses a return-ticket to the state of nature. Golden Ages are no more than the apparitions of forgetful nostalgia. Moreover, Golden Ages were not golden for everyone. If you wish for a world free of technology, sign up for the nearest Amish community. We must acknowledge that most of us live (comfortably or otherwise) in a capitalist society. Furthermore, our participation in this society requires a minimum level of prosperity. Ironically, I cannot write or publish these words without the products made by those people in Silicon Valley that I seem to hold in contempt. The whole affair reminds me of Louise Mensch’s comments about Occupy London in an old episode of Have I Got News For You?

One is not ethically obligated to return to a pre-technological state of nature to critique the role of technology in our lives. One can protest capitalism while drinking Café Lattes and using your smartphone. The Laggard is the opposite of the person who believes that we cannot have innovation without capitalism. Under capitalism, we are permitted only one regime of innovation: FREE WIFI AND DIRTY WATER FOR ALL! The Laggard wants to try out other regimes of innovation. Some of them even hold the radically subversive view that everyone has a right to access clean water (in Flint, Michigan, Sebring, Ohio, and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation…): FREE WIFI AND CLEAN WATER FOR ALL!

So, I start and end with water and machines. Why did McLuhan deem it appropriate to insert an ancient tale into his book about the then-emergent phenomenon of mass media? Every new technology disrupts the physical body and the body politic in electrifyingly dramatic ways, but very few people notice. Two decades ago, no one could have imagined or anticipated the seismic impact of Facebook. Nowadays, the extraordinary become mundane instantly. The abnormal becomes hypernormalized. That’s why we need people who pay attention more than ever. Admittedly, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris’ famous awareness tests prove that we see only what we are told to watch:

We are too busy watching the basketball game to notice the gorilla. Some people do not realize that there is a heart of a machine growing in their chest, wired up to the market with transcontinental fiber-optic cables. Everyone has a heart of metal these days, but they also have a choice to sever the wires. Water is too precious and necessary to become a commodity. Water is life. Ironically, the humble gardener refused the offer of more clean water, whereas the new Laggards demand it. Sites of struggle change. As soon as we cut the wires, our machine hearts can roam wherever they wish and fight whenever they want. They will beat and beat. To fight for one’s life and the lives of others is the only progress worth chasing.


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