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Finding Salvation in Sin City

There is a large electric billboard in the Las Vegas airport, right above luggage area 3, which flashes the following messages, one after another:

Live Sharks!

Las Vegas Museum of Natural History!

Hands-on for Kids!

Thus it was with a certain anticipation that I returned to the airport, after three days in the unreal city. I was ready for any strange new sight - but there before me in the terminal was a branch of Waterstone's Booksellers, as reassuring as a village rectory.

In the Vegas airport?

You can spot a Waterstone's at 100 paces. The shelves, painted British Racing Green, reach up to the ceiling, the books are and there are real books on them: a full shelf of poetry, for example, right across from the $1 poker machines.

Most airport bookstores specialize in John Grisham, soft-core porn, crosswords and books that tell you How to Live Forever, Become a Millionaire, and Get Lots of Sex. Waterstone's has the complete poems of John Donne.

It is harder to get me past a bookstore than a drunk past a saloon. I bought Robertson Davies' new novel and a collection of poems by Charles Bukowski. On the flight back to Chicago, rummaging through the bag, I found a copy of something called "Op. Cit.," described as "The Waterstone's Newsletter."

As I read it, my eyes grew wide. This is not your average bookstore newsletter, filled with promotional chatter. It defies convention by daring to tell the truth and have opinions. I was so startled by its contents that I looked again at the cover, to be sure it was not an April Fool's joke. Here is some of what it has to say: "We sell a lot of bad books. And more than likely, you've bought one. . . . This past year's The Bell Curve outdistanced them all: A bad book compounded by bad press. Science aside, The Bell Curve was a fairly boring read." On I Want to Tell You, by O. J. Simpson: "Here's what this bookseller thinks about it: The book is a piece of trash; paying O.J. 1 million bucks to help pay Johnnie Cochran is a sick joke; and Little, Brown, of all people, should know better than to associate themselves with such a sleazy enterprise." Sleaze on the shelves: "Look, we do what we can, but with publishing now substantially in the hands of showbiz slickers, trust us, it's going to get worse."

Elsewhere in "Op. Cit." is a list of what Waterstone's thinks are some of the best books now in the stores. By the time I got to it, I was ready for it.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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