Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash: An Eco-friendly guide to automotive murder, and Borders Books, the New Emptiness and the end of America

Matt Labash Columnist
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If Jared Lee Loughner had driven his car at 80 mph into that crowd at the Safeway and killed 6, wounding 19, would the Democrats in Congress now be trying to ban Toyotas? – Craig Coldren

I smell cynicism. Or perhaps it’s just my Orange Dreamsicle-scented Yankee Candle, which I burn when I write, because it relaxes me, and makes me think of more pleasant things, like ice-cream trucks and dreams of a better tomorrow. But your gun/Toyota analogy doesn’t quite hold up. It’s not like you can just walk in off the street and buy a Toyota. Or I guess you can. But who’d want to? Consumer Reports now ranks Toyota sixth in quality. If you’re really going to mow down a crowd of people at a supermarket, and not raise the legislative ire of congressional Democrats, I’d go with the Chevy Volt.

Not only can you commute without harmful gas and tailpipe-emissions, for the low cost of about $1.50 per day. But while senselessly plowing over innocent men, women and children, you’ll also enjoy the quiet onboard generator/engine, the energy efficient Bose Premium system with six speakers and a subwoofer, and other amenities that have seen the Green Car Journal name the Volt its “2011 Green Car of the Year.” With such mitigating factors, I can’t really see anyone trying to ban your car. In fact, you might be held up as the very model of eco-friendliness, since let’s face it — carbon emissions and our dependence on foreign oil are killing more people than you ever could.

I just read that Borders Books and Music probably won’t make it through 2011. What’s happening to America? – Clyde J.

It’s ending. Or not ending, so much as going through growing pains to become something else entirely. Think of it as a caterpillar breaking free from a cocoon to become a pretty butterfly. Or like a Mayfly shedding its exoskeleton, emerging from the water’s film with gossamer wings, only to lay its eggs and be devoured by a ravenous trout. Or like a fully-grown man, lopping off his limbs, so that he can flop around on the floor, incapacitated and bleeding to death. In another words, it’s not a worse America, just a different one.

In a recent Weekly Standard piece, I lamented the passing of all the things we have taken for granted, but which are now being cheered into obsolescence. The techno-triumphalists who do so, seem eager for half the American economy to be relegated to the status of telegraph operators and bowling-alley pinsetters, so that by the year 2015 or so, positively everything will be available by the click of a button. That way, none of us will ever again have to have human contact or move our fat asses off the couch in order to sate our every desire.

And Borders would now appear to be something you could add to the rapidly multiplying endangered species list.  While I’ve thus far refused to succumb to a Kindle — I read books to get away from the reading I do on a screen all day — I readily admit that I long ago started buying most of my books on Amazon. Since I buy many used books through their used-bookstore network, I like to think I’m helping keep mom’n’pop stores afloat that would have probably perished long ago.

But I still liked knowing Borders is there. When I was a young intern at a local magazine, expected to carry out menial tasks like calling every restaurant in Washington DC to find out which credit cards they take, I’d often escape to Borders, sitting in their overstuffed chairs while perusing books I couldn’t afford, taking in the fragrant aromas of their coffee-bar and the urine-puddle of the hobo sleeping in the chair next to me, who had the same idea, escape-wise.

Even though it was an impersonal, corporate chain, Borders still served as a respite from the world. A place where you could browse Dog & Kennel magazine, or an obscure reference book,  or a great work of literature, or even the Hooters calendar, if your taste ran to that. (Mine didn’t, I preferred the Kathy Ireland calendar, because I’m sophisticated). It took you to other worlds for free. The problem, I guess, is that too many people went there for free, or didn’t go there at all, which is why Borders is currently facing bankruptcy.

It struck me the other day, that I haven’t been to a record store that wasn’t in a Borders in a good three years, since it’s now easier to find blacksmith shops than record stores. In a very short period of time, the one at my local Borders has shrunk to one-fifth of its original size. And  even if Borders doesn’t go down for the count, its music section probably will, or at best, it will be consigned  to a single forgotten shelf tucked way in the back of the store, near the Assyrian poetry and journalism sections.

I know we’re supposed to soldier ahead unsentimentally, callously pulling for the Survival of the Fittest — the strong happily march on, as the weak get culled from the herd by all our iGadgetry. Still, when I find myself, on a Saturday afternoon, trapped in some interchangeable faceless strip mall in Anywheresville, Suburbia, waiting for the little woman to buy her pretty girly things — how am I supposed to pass time now, with all the bookstores and record stores shuttered? All that’s left, sometimes, it seems, are nail salons and Starbucks. I don’t drink coffee. And I had my nails pulled out long ago when I was captured after my plane went down in the war. (The War on Illiteracy). Maybe I’ll just stand there like a dope, taking in the New Emptiness, wondering if this is the America I fought for. Or maybe I’ll finally break down and buy one of those Kindles. I hear they’re compact enough to fit inside a man purse. And while they’re not the ideal way to read — they don’t yield the satisfaction of holding a physical book in your hand — at least it’ll give me one more reason to stay pinned to the couch, so that I don’t have to go out, and count the things that are no longer there.

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” was published this spring by Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.