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Friday, April 23, 2010

Lenin For Sale

Lenin is going for practically nothing. Several volumes of Lenin's works were for sale on a sidewalk table in the university district of Warsaw recently. Just beyond the stairway of the church, where first you encounter the pulp trade -- boobs flashed on the covers of magazines and DVD's barely outside the church doors -- on Krakowskie Przedmiesce, down the street from the Presidential Palace, and across from elegant gates of the University of Warsaw, Lenin is for sale along with Winnie the Pooh. You can pick up a few of his volumes for little more than a quarter a piece. What do you do with old college textbooks? Some can be sold back to the university bookstore, or by notices on the campus bulletin board. Now we sell them online. Some we give away, others sit on a shelf, supposedly for future reference, and some we toss -- as far and as hard as possible. A popular option when I was in college was to sell them at the annual community garage sale, in the book stall. The only down side to this option was, well, the community aspect of the enterprise. Lois put out a box of her books with a sign that read, "25 cents each." She hovered close by as they disappeared a few at a time. Late in the day most of her books had been snatched up. Only a few lonely volumes languished, left in the box, rejected time after time, hour after hour. She was ready to give them away. In fact, she now rather wishes she had packed it in right then but she stood watch as a late browser wandered in. He pawed through several of the other boxes, from different donors, before turning his attention to Lois' box of leftovers. Now, let's say he was the author of one of those books. Let's say he was the president of the university. Let's say he sees his own book, the one he wrote, the one he used as a text for the one course he taught, in that box of rejects. And let's say that he wondered, "who would sell this?" He is curious. He opens the book and is about to check the inside front cover. He is thinking of the quip he will make to Lois, the joke he will make at the expense of whatever clod lacked the good sense to keep it, or, at the very least, to unload it someplace else, out of the neighborhood. "Ha, ha, is he or she in trouble now!" Lois stands frozen in place. Lois, now a junior level administrator at this very same university stands frozen in place, across a narrow table from her former professor, this man who is now her boss. She watches as he finds her name penned in ink inside that front cover. Disbelieving, he looks up at her, as if to ask, "how could you?" The blood drains from her face. She is mortified. Until. Until she recovers her wits and remembers that it was a stupid book and, anyway, shouldn't he be the more embarrassed? And so she gives him a look back, a shrug and a wry smile, as if to say, "hey, it's worth a quarter!" Lenin isn't even worth a quarter, at least not here in the market economy of post-Leninist Poland. A few days later I pass the table again and his books are still there. Winnie the Pooh is gone, a Polish edition of a Danielle Steele novel there in its place. But Lenin is stuck in the same spot, between the porn and the commonplace. Would he sell at any price? I imagine the encounter Lenin would have with the bookseller, a brawny man with a few days' beard and flannel shirt, looking, in fact, like he belongs in Brainerd, Minnesota, with Paul Bunyan. There are no plaintive looks, no pathetic gazes. No shrugs or wry smiles either. Lenin is furious. He might shoot the guy on the spot. The bookseller is adamant and dismissive. "You had your chance. It got corrupted. And it didn't work. You had your day. Now we're done. We've moved on." And so it is in Poland today. Except for me. I decided that two-bits of Lenin is a worthwhile souvenir.

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