Sunday, December 18, 2011

A meditation on apes, corporate greed, feelings of extinction, and the loss of literacy #OccupyBarnesAndNoble

by Shawn Thompson

It's terrible to contemplate the death of a species like the orangutan. 

I've been thinking of various ways to try to comprehend this unimaginable event. I imagine that extinction is a big death similar in some ways to the small death of the individual.

But what jolted me into thinking about this in a different way was the shock of strolling into my favourite Barnes and Noble bookstore in Seattle this weekend and discovering that the bookstore will come to an end on December 31, 2011. Good bye to the old year and hello to the new era!

As a book author writing about orangutans and someone concerned about literacy, a bookstore is my sacred space. In a bookstore I see the people like me who cherish the flow of the written word pass through the commercial arches.

Now the space in the fifth largest Barnes and Noble store in the United States, in the readership district of the hinterland of the University of Washington, shrinks day by day towards its demise at the end of the year, one book at a time, just as the forest of orangutans shrinks one tree at a time.

If we didn't have memories, we might not notice the change and just think that the size of the shrinking forest has always been the same.

Certainly corporations, whether book chains, mall owners or the companies converting the rain forest to palm oil plantations, must feel safe in the knowledge that people and orangutans feel powerless and simply adjust to change over time. The annoying sounds they make in protest will simply grow fainter and fainter.

I was talking to a frustrated and introverted employee of Barnes and Noble, with the word Graham on his name plate, and learning that he and the others were suddenly laid off, with one week's pay for each year of bookselling, his dedication to books and literacy eroded over the years by corporate insensitive and illiteracy. A customer came up while Graham and I were discussing  localized fate and change, and when I asked the customer how she felt about the store closing, she shrugged. It made her sad. "But there is nothing we can do," she said and seemed uncomfortable that I wanted to discuss the issue. She wanted to buy a book instead.

I had already told Graham that, as the author of a book about the looming extinction of orangutans, I am a great supporter of lost causes. Just because you think a cause is lost doesn't mean that you should stop the fight.

But the change is relentless. The death of books. The death of literacy. The death of a noble species of ape.


In the case of the University Village mall in Seattle, Graham told me that the mall corporation wanted to raise the rent of Barnes and Noble while the bookstore had declining sales and was pruning its sales staff over the years in a corporate reflex action. The book business in general has declining sales of hard copy books and a surge of sales of ebooks that doesn't compensate for the difference. Which means that a book author like me is a species under pressure.

Graham, who studied literature in university and not the more relevant subject of corporate greed, also said that the mall wants to chop up the Barnes and Noble space into smaller stores to make more money, the same way land is subdivided for smaller house lots to make it worth more. The responsibility to literacy in a devoted community of readers around the university, in a city with one of the highest rates of book consumption  per capita in the United States, doesn't matter as much as making a buck. No surprise. That we know.

At the same time, in a mirror universe, the local University Village bookstore was also in the clutches of its corporate office in New York, which wouldn't let the local store support local writers, such as me as the author of a book about orangutans living several blocks away. When corporate headquarters decided it had sold enough of an orangutan book in Seattle, maybe less than a dozen copies, it was no longer interested in stocking them on the shelves. The importance of the cause underlying an orangutan book does not matter to the corporation. The fate of the orangutan does not matter to the palm oil plantation.

One of the issues I discussed with Graham was how often you discover by chance a new interest by browsing in a bookstore. An old statistic from ancient pre-web days said that 60 per cent of purchases in bookstores came from people who bought on impulse in a bookstore. With fewer bookstores, we will lose that. If a book chain does not take the responsibility to stock its shelves with books worth stumbling over, then that opportunity vanishes.

I bought several books on impulse after talking to Graham, although I regretted that it would be no benefit to him personally. I found a book by Jacques Derrida called The Animal That I Therefore Am, which I didn't know existed until I saw it on the shelf. Before that moment, I would not have known if it disappeared. The back of the book says, "The book is at once an affectionate look back over the multiple roles played by animals in Derrida's work and a profound philosophical investigation and critique of the relegation of animal life that takes place as a result of the distinction -- dating from Descartes -- between man as thinking animal and every other living species." The affectionate and the profound are what I want, plus relationships with unincorporated animals.

I also bought a cheap abridged paperback copy of Alexander Dumas's novel The Count of Monte Cristo, thinking it was somehow relevant to the experience of life and would help.

When I took the books to the checkout counter, the butch, overly tall woman at the cash register was being cheerful and said, "Would you like to purchase a Barnes and Noble membership?" I responded by reflex, in solidarity, by saying, "Why would I want to buy a membership in a company that is closing this bookstore and laying off people like you?"


The psychology of all this is similar to the rain forest and orangutans. The rain forest is like the space of the bookstore and the orangutan the individual literacy that inhabits it. Orangutans, after all, discover things, create their own culture and share what they learn with the group. That is basic rain forest literacy. Losing just one orangutan is like losing the information in a book. And it can't be replicated by a printing press.

Part of the genius of Jane Goodall is to recognize the importance of an individual ape in this way. She says in a collection called The Great Ape Project, "Each chimpanzee has a unique personality and each has his or her own individual life history ... And we find that individual chimpanzees can make a difference to the course of chimpanzee history, as is the case with humans."

That reminds me of what the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury called "the butterfly effect." Change one tiny element and it has a huge ripple effect accumulating and amplifying over a long period of time. The loss of the effect of the individual could be great over time.

So when we talk about the extinction of a species of ape we are talking about an abstraction and not the effect of the loss to the whole of the individual. Extinction is bad enough, but the loss of an individual can have a ripple effect. And you are never aware of what you have lost.

So the printed book is doomed. The rain forest is doomed. The orangutan is doomed.

How would an orangutan feel about a shrinking forest? Photo by Shawn Thompson

What does extinction feel like? Can we imagine something so big and terrible? 

I wonder if an orangutan would feel like me wandering around the shrinking space in my local bookstore habitat and feeling the palpable way that the absence is expanding, like a big godly thumb pressing down on my small squishy soul. It makes me feel the personal presence of it all. Maybe the Count of Monte Cristo could deal with the experience, but not me.

I was curious what sections of books would disappear first and what kind of strategy there was, probably mapped out by consultants for the corporation, to lessen the sense that books are disappearing. The westerns were gone first and a selection of  Science Fiction and children's books. Book shelves were removed to eliminate the traces that something was missing on the shelves.

I tried to imagine what this would be like for an orangutan. Every morning you wake up and a few more trees are gone. The sunlight is breaking through the edges of your forest more. The annoying mechanical and human sounds from outside are growing closer and muffled less by the buffer of trees.

In the bookstore, I felt myself herded to the sections of books that remained, a kind of unconscious adaptive strategy. The variety is shrinking. Some pleasures and interests are vanishing. I try to compensate by other pleasures and interests so that I won't notice and feel bad.

For an orangutan in the forest, the variety of fruit trees is shrinking. Maybe during the day you retreat more to the higher parts of a tree or to the shifting centre of the forest. At night, maybe you don't sleep as deeply. You dream of vague vanished pleasures and interests and when you wake up try to enjoy the fruit that remains. How conscious are you of missing fruit?

In the bookstore, as the number of books diminishes, so do the fellow book lovers. I am feeling more and more solitary. I am more aware of myself in an emptiness that is growing larger. I feel smaller but more important too.

For the orangutan, already solitary, the orangutans out in the trees that you once heard and saw from time to time are diminishing. There are more human beings invading the jungle. There are fewer social pleasures. Fewer dating opportunities. More compromises.

I think my mind had drifted a bit in the bookstore and then I felt that Graham had exhausted what he wanted to say. Maybe he felt embarrassed that he had revealled too much about his private pain.

I could see that Graham the crushed and introverted former idealist felt powerless, his world, his dreams, his ambitions, his small role in literacy, devastated. He had trouble looking me in the eye, but thanked me for listening patiently to his long tale and then shook my hand with the iron power one expects from a dock worker, not a distracted dispenser of books.


I went home to tell my partner Wendy the disaster. The best thing about our location in Seattle is being close to a huge literacy space and the abundance of urban trees. Our street is noisy with traffic, which I don't like.

Wendy understood right away and gave me a big hug and then told me the other disastrous news. Our 14-year-old dog Emo had consumed five chocolate bars he found cached in a bedroom, which could send his already fluttery heart into death throes. It's what I call the chocolate "flush." Very healthy. No need to go into details.

So it was not a good moment as I sat down in a white heat to write this account.

Maybe this is akin to what it is like to feel the green and fluid wave of corporate greed sweep over a forest and a species.

In losing orangutans, we are losing a kind of literacy, a kind of literate space. I feel another dimension of that now. I feel the handshake from an individual orangutan saying goodbye.

On December 31, 2011, at the arbitrary afternoon hour of 1 p.m., I will spend an hour by myself in the Barnes and Noble bookstore in the University Village mall in Seattle meditating in one of their upholstered chairs on the death of species and literate spaces and how powerless we feel. Orangutans and the rain forest will be in my mind. Then I will go home to Wendy and the dog and eat Chinese vegetarian dumplings. 


Background information: The University Village mall in Seattle is owned by Sloan Capital, which is owned by Seattle sixty-something businessman Stuart M. Sloan, who has dabbled in grocery stores and a vineyard in California.

The Christmas card I sent this year to mall owner Stuart Sloan with a Christmas wish.
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