Bookstores! For bibliophilic folks such as I, there is no more fascinating or attractive idea. The very notion of a place where I can spend the day surrounded by books, wandering here and there with no particular goal other than the hope that I might stumble across the book I’ve never seen by an author I’ve never heard of that will provide hours of entertainment, provoke new thoughts, and that might even, as Richard Rorty suggests, be the basis for “an encounter which rearranges my priorities and purposes” is exhilarating and stimulating. Such discoveries happen regularly enough to raise hopes to expectations, but even if no magical connections are made, there are few ways to spend a few hours more attractive than in an establishment specifically dedicated to the sale of my favorite thing: books. I have been told that everything I have just described is also available in a library, but I strangely have never been a big fan of libraries. The whole idea of borrowing a book and having to give it back is foreign to me. A book is something that I want to own, to devour, to add to my collection of specimens—definitely not something to give back. Furthermore, libraries don’t usually have coffee shops.
So I should be in the front lines of those publicly bemoaning the demise of the bookstore. Borders is gone—I’m still pissed every time I pass the corner of Providence Place Mall where my favorite Borders used to be located, now occupied by a mega-shoe store, for God’s sake. Barnes and Noble is still around (although I always liked Borders more), but the two in our area are at least ten miles away, which in Rhode Island is an overnight trip. There are a number of independent booksellers and used book stores in our area; I suspect they are struggling to keep their noses above water. These should be my new hangouts, places where you might find me with Jeanne in tow on any given weekend afternoon. But no. Instead of doing what any true bibliophile should be doing as bookstores close down—finding another one—I’ve gone to the dark side. I’ve entered the Amazon.
In a recent “60 Minutes” interview, Jeff Bezos said that he wants Amazon to become the place where anyone in the world can buy absolutely anything. Its goal is “to sell everything to everyone.” I don’t know about that, although I have indeed purchased an advent wreath, a Betty Boop Christmas ornament and a plastic bag dispenser to hold the bags needed to pick up dog shit from the back yard from Amazon in the past few months. Amazon’s primary purpose in my life, though, is to be my several-million-titles-and-growing bookstore. And mean real books. I do not own a Kindle and don’t intend to. I have explained in previous posts that only when they make an e-reader that feels and smells like a real book will I consider taking that plunge.
But with my Amazon Prime membership which includes two-day free shipping, I can order books on Monday and have them reliably sitting at my back door when I return from campus on Wednesday. Until recently, that is.
My Christmas shopping for the past several holiday seasons has been primarily an Amazon extravaganza. Books always are a significant portion of gifts for Jeanne, and I of course always add a title or two for me. Orders were made during the first week of December.
Wednesday, December 4: Ordered two more books for Jeanne that I forgot about on Tuesday (God bless free delivery) plus one more for me.
Thursday, December 5: Was crushed to return home after work to no Amazon box at my back door. Blamed it (grudgingly) on the Christmas rush.
Friday, December 6: The Amazon box at my back door contained Wednesday’s order delivered within the two-day free shipping parameters. Fine, but where the hell is my Tuesday order? As I have done many times over the past few years, I went online, signed in to my Amazon account, and clicked on “Track Package” for the appropriate order. I was accordingly informed that the package was “in transit,” having left the seller facility (Amazon warehouse) in New Castle, Delaware on its way to the carrier (UPS) at 17:56 on Wednesday 12/4 with an estimated delivery of Thursday 12/5 by 8:00 PM. The package in question had not reported in since leaving the warehouse and it was now twenty-four hours late in arriving. I sprang into action.
Clicking on “Contact us,” I sent an email to Amazon customer service. Impressively, within two hours I received an email from either a woman or a very smart computer named Natalie expressing abject regret at the inconvenience, asking for my patience during the holiday season, and requesting that I wait one more day before further steps were taken. Natalie contacted me around noon the next day (Saturday), wondering whether the package had shown up. In response to my one word reply—“no”—Natalie sent the following: “Since there is no further tracking information, we will treat this order as a lost package. A new order will be placed for these items and sent to you by overnight delivery at no charge to you. Because of the obvious inconvenience, I have extended your Amazon Prime membership [which was due to expire in January] for three months.” In other words, let’s pretend the first order never happened. We’ll just do a “do over” and throw you a three-month membership extension bone for the obvious, nerve-wracking and blood-pressure raising inconvenience of a package being two days late. The replacement package arrived on Monday. Customer satisfied, end of story.
But I got to thinking (always a dangerous thing) about that “lost package.” Where is it? What happened to it? Is it laying in the weeds by the side of the road? Is the person to whose house it was incorrectly delivered now enjoying season three of “Breaking Bad”? There are deep existential issues here. Really—bear with me. If an Amazon order is made online, but the package never arrives, does the package really exist? Natalie essentially said “let’s pretend this never happened. Let’s pretend that the order was actually made on Saturday, not the previous Tuesday.” And really, the only evidence I have that the Tuesday-ordered package ever existed is a cryptic report that it left the Amazon facility in Delaware on Wednesday. Is that really sufficient evidence to support something’s existence? As the Irish philosopher and Anglican clergyman George Berkeley once wrote, “to exist is to be perceived.” Lacking the perception of holding the package in my hands, opening it up and examining its contents, for all intents and purposes said package never existed.
I know, I know. Leave it to a philosopher to turn a story about a lost Christmas package into a contemporary version of the lame old philosophical puzzle “If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there, is there a sound?” But think about it. How do we, really, establish the existence of something? By sensory experience. To illustrate, I sometimes ask my students “How many of you believe that Japan exists?” Everyone does. Then I want to know “How many of you have ever been there?” Usually no one has. So the obvious question is “Then how do you know that Japan exists?” Answers range from “my uncle visited there and told me about it” to having seen pictures of it in a book or a movie about it. In other words, we are more than willing to accept indirect sensory evidence to establish the existence of things. But when there is no sensory evidence, direct or indirect, of something’s existence—such as in the case of my package—there is no relevant difference between saying that something is “lost” and saying that it does not exist.
This is worth considering when issues concerning God’s existence arise. How is a person to prove God’s existence? If Berkeley is right that “to exist is to be perceived,” then the existence of God is not something ultimately dependent upon logical arguments, no matter how sound and valid they might be. Belief in the existence of God is entirely rooted in experience, in a certainty that can only arise from direct contact. For those who have fallen into the hands of a living God, logical arguments add nothing but “of course.” For those who have not had such an encounter, logical arguments are never enough. This is why God chooses to enter the world in tangible, human form rather than theological and philosophical arguments. Rumors of a package on the way, divine or otherwise, are never enough—we need to hold the thing in our hands.