Recently my wife and I found ourselves stuck in an airport, waiting for a delayed plane, with absolutely nothing to occupy our time.
"I think I'll get us a cup of coffee and maybe something to read," she said.
I cringed at the idea of buying a paperback at inflated airport prices but when starring down the barrel of an eight-hour fight plus layovers and inevitable delays I had to concede.
"Good idea!" I said. "I'll stay here and guard the base camp. Pick something for me as well."
She raised an eyebrow. "...Okay."
Several minutes later she returned triumphantly with a tennis magazine for herself and a paperback for me. She showed me the receipt, stapled to a bookmark. It read: Buy a book, read it, and exchange it with your receipt for a 50% refund. Hallelujah! I welcomed both coffee and paperback with gracious thanks and relief.
Our flight, only slightly delayed; our seats, confirmed; each of us armed with a surprisingly good cup of Joe we settled in for some reading. For the first time since February I was about to engage in pulp fiction — reading for entertainment, no critiques, no technical language, no editing, no stress, just full-on action! My wife had chosen well, the jacket promised everything I could want: guns, tits and fire trucks — let the vacation begin!
I barely got though the prologue.
The writing was juvenile and not in the good "Harry Potter" sort of way. Every tired cliché, stock stereotype character and plot device was pulled out of the bag. Somehow it was felt necessary to not only describe the action in laborious detail but to also insult the intelligence of the reader by carefully pointing out every subtle nuance lest the lowly, bewildered reader miss some ostensibly clever touch amid the melodramatic mire of superfluous adjectives and lazy adverbs that populated the tortuously long and insipid sentences (like the one you just read). It was so distasteful to my palate that it was impossible for me to both suspend my disbelief and ignore the writing at the same time.
Subconsciously I began to slink into my seat and pinch the bridge of my nose.
"Nothing, I'm just waiting for this to get better."
"It's a new release, it's on the best seller's list, and it's been made into a movie. I thought it would be safe."
"Me too," I handed her the book. "Read this bit."
She frowned and mouthed a few words.
"Oh dear... Well, you haven't had a chance to get into the action and the story. You're too picky."
"You're right." I said, with renewed resolve to be entertained. "I have unreasonable expectations."
After another five minutes I was nearly horizontal in my seat.
I handed her the book with my finger on a paragraph. "Remember the last high-school kid I mentored? Seventeen years old and could write first drafts better than this."
"This guy has several books to his name."
She opened to the first page of the book and showed me the list of titles.
"Of course, he died in 2001"
"That explains why his writing is so awful. Did you read that bit I showed you?"
She sighed and acquiesced. "Bloody awful."
"Poor guy is probably whizzing around in his grave."
Another five minutes passed. I must have sighed deeply without realizing it.
"What, what? I didn't say anything."
"You are thinking something; I'm catching a vibe."
"I just want to go on record saying that you picked this book."
"It will be the last time I pick one for you as well."
"Here read this bit."
"Why are you torturing me with this? If you don't like it, why don't you take it back?"
"Because I don't want to make you mad..."
That statement was followed by about 10 seconds of complete silence where, if possible I would have crawled into the carry-on bag under my seat. "I'll just stretch my legs then."
I walked back to the shop to find a woman behind the counter who obviously didn't want to be there.
"Can I help you?"
"Yeah, my wife just bought me this book about 20 minutes ago and it's just awful. I was wondering if I could exchange it for a different one."
"You don't like it?"
"Well, she did the best she could, but figured I'd do better if I just picked one myself."
"You can trade it in for half your money if you have a receipt."
"Thank you, but I'm not interested in getting my money back, I just want to exchange it for another book."
"But you already read this one."
"Believe me; I couldn't make it through the second chapter. The book doesn't even look thumbed through. If you look at the time stamp on the receipt, you can see that I haven't had it long enough to read it."
At this point a helpful Asian woman appeared at the checkout with a handful of purchases. She was very conspicuous as she attempted to see which book I was returning.
"You no like this book?"
"Awful. Just awful."
"I wanted to see so I don't read it myself. Oh! That's made into a movie!"
"I hope the movie is better."
"I can't give you your money back, Sir. Only the 50% exchange."
"I don't want my MONEY. I just want to pick a different book. If it costs more I'm happy to pay the difference."
My pleasant smile and relaxed posture indicated that I wasn't about to relinquish my place in an ever-growing line of patrons. My plane was delayed. I had all day.
A few other folks began to glance at the book.
The Asian woman spoke up again. "Your wife thought that's a good book for you. You know. A MAN book."
The cashier reached for the phone.
I had to grin. "My wife is usually good at picking 'man books' but she didn't actually open this one and read a page, otherwise she would have put it down and run."
The cashier's conversation was inaudible but it involved a lot of typing on the register. No security guards were headed my way so I figured she was calling the manager.
"This author write lots of books?"
"Yeah, but I think he died about six years ago."
"The manager says you can exchange the book for another book of lesser or equal value from the read and return section, Sir."
"Thank you," I said and carefully placed the book on the counter.
The Asian woman smiled and put her purchases on the counter as well.
I selected my book (it was mighty slim pickings but I managed to find one that was only slightly cheesy) and returned to my wife.
"Are you happy now?" She asked.
"I'll let you know in a bit."
"You are impossible to please."
"That's not fair; there are plenty of authors I enjoy."
I didn't finish that book either.
Michael S McKlusky is part jester and curmudgeon; Buddhist and misanthrope; writer and editor. He says this dichotomy arrives through participation with the yin and yang that drives creation rather than his being a Gemini with Taurus rising.