The Silliness of Image

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Although I’ve always had a fairly strong non-comfortist streak, for about a couple of years after I first started going to private school, I really worked hard at trying to fit in and gain acceptance with the “cool” crowd in my class. I begged and whined at my parents until they got me the $40 shirts everyone else was wearing to school, I refused to wear anything my parents bought from K-Mart (which was the family’s primary outfitter at the time), I got heavily into rap music during its first real mainstream surge, and started growing my hair out. I failed at gaining acceptance, of course, and eventually reverted to my old ways of acting and dressing (although I still wear my hair long), before finally finding communities at Antioch, online, and (on-and-off at) UT that accepted and appreciated me for who I am. I think it was only later, though, years after I stopped trying to gain my peers’ acceptance at that private school, that I actually learned the whole thing about not presenting a false image to others and being true to yourself and all of that stuff.

To this day, though, I don’t think it’s a lesson that has taken root. As a case in point, I’ve been doing most of my entertainment shopping online ever since Media Play went out of business a couple of years ago; given where I do most of that shopping, I’ll take this opportunity to remind you all that if you, too, want to shop at the Internet’s top retailer, use this link to Amazon.com when making your purchases and I’ll get a little extra store credit to help me buy stuff. Better still, you could buy me something off of my Amazon.com wishlist. (I’m shameless, I know.) Anyway, as much as I love shopping at Amazon, I shop at other retailers when I can find a better deal or when they can get something to me faster than Amazon can. One of those retailers is Barnes and Noble, and I get frequent e-mails from them about special offers and such; I’m not in their membership club yet, but I probably should be given that I’ll probably save more money than the membership costs. (I don’t like going to their bricks-and-mortar store in Toledo because it’s across the street from our huge mall and the traffic out there is horrible, particularly in the heavy shopping season, but I still try to make it out there every month or two.)

This past week, in one of their e-mails, Barnes and Noble was advertising a collection of four Hemingway novels in one tome for just over ten bucks. (When I went to the Barnes and Noble Website, though, it was selling for less than nine.) Strange as it may seem, I’ve never read Hemingway before, even though I have a general sense that he’s one of those authors whom I should have read long ago, if not for the benefit of my own writing then just for the rich images he paints with his words. Eventually I also received a coupon for 15% off of any item, so I applied that discount to The Power of Myth (which was already selling cheaper there on Amazon, and I needed to buy so I could stop borrowing my sister’s copy all the time), and between that and the Hemingway collection I got a good order and qualified for free shipping. The order should arrive here, I hope, by the middle of the week.

Here’s the thing, though: in addition to shopping at Barnes and Noble, the Hemingway collection comes from Barnes and Noble’s own printing press. As much as I know that Barnes and Noble probably has a snooty reputation among the general public, within academic circles they’re actually seen as kind of pedestrian. There just seems to be this general comtempt for Barnes and Noble, not just for being the huge nasty national chain choking out all the good local bookstores (although Borders was the reason Toledo’s great independent bookstore, Thackeray’s, shuttered a few years ago), but also for being a kind of faux source of intelligence. There’s this dark cloud hanging over my head from all my years of higher education that seems to be saying to me that if I were really educated that I wouldn’t be shopping somewhere as “common” as Barnes and Noble, let alone buying books from their own press.

Just to be clear about this from the start, no one needs to tell me just how silly this kind of thinking is. I’m well aware of it, and I wish I understood why I was letting this kind of thinking cloud my judgment. Hemingway novels are Hemingway novels no matter who prints them, and I’ll be getting the same great content I would have gotten if I’d purchased the books separately, from different presses, and at greater expense, from another publisher. If I lose esteem in the eyes of some of my academic colleagues because I shop at Barnes and Noble, then the real problem is with my colleagues, not me. At the same time, though, as nonsensical as it sounds, I kind of hesitated to place my order for the Hemingway collection at first, and looking back now I feel kind of dumb for having done so. Perhaps all those years ago I did stop giving in to peer pressure to maintain a certain kind of image from my classmates, but I can’t help but wonder now if perhaps that kind of poor thinking is manifesting itself again in this pressure I feel about shopping at Barnes and Noble. Maybe I didn’t learn my lesson back then as well as I thought I had.

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