Tuesday, 28 November 2017

A man walks into a bookstore...

Junot Diaz - Drown
I had 17 minutes until my train departed, so I went to the bookstore on the station concourse and began browsing. I've seen two authors, whose previous works I've read and enjoyed, advertised on the Underground recently, Arundhati Roy and Zadie Smith. So I thought I'd have a look at their latest creations. But quite quickly I picked up Christopher Berry-Dee's Talking with Psychopaths and Savages. Something about the cover grabbed me: maybe it was the sub-title A journey into the evil mind, or the sub-sub-title A chilling study of the most cold-blooded, manipulative people on planet earth. She can't possibly be in this. Can she?

As I scanned the shelf for a second title, the shop assistant asked: "Are you looking for something similar to that one?" and quickly we were engaged in a conversation. We discussed authors and genres, and she even read out an extract from a novel. Then she suggested the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, one of the most enjoyable novels that I've read in the past five years. She hadn't like Junot Diaz's later work This is how you lose her, which I thought was also insightful and entertaining, but she recommended nevertheless Drown, a collection of short stories that pre-dates both. I paid and ran for my train, hopping on as the doors closed.

The conversation I had on that day in that store with that woman is different to the conversation I had on a different day, in another store with a man. They are human and have the qualities that are uniquely human, each time distinct, yet familiar. Today, AI can't replicate this: your voice assistant doesn't even get close. And I don't want it to. I don't want a machine to do this human thing: I don't want Blade Runner. But I do want it.

One time: "What's your favourite book?", she asked. "The Hobbit", I conceded, a little coy. Alternatively: "Do you have The Sellout?", I enquired. "We've sold out, I'm afraid", he replied, suppressing a snicker. And most recently: "I could swear that horse had a name", she said as I approached the counter. "What do you think was the horse's name?" "Bob", she suggested.

Are you enriching human interaction and experience, or chipping away at it?

And as for those books? Psychopaths I found deadly dull; but Drown buoyed me up again.