08 January, 2014

Value as Treasure In Itself

Being employed at a retailer of books, any given customer enters our store from out of the winter's cold with a title scribbled on a piece of paper or pulled up on their smartphone. I am shown these titles or provided clues for their discovery, often out of reach of the customer's own memory. The numerous tables in the store that we must navigate through as we head off are full of newer books with covers designed so successfully that one may judge and be in the right to have judged its content by the affixed label. Tote bags and novelties are grabbed on the way to or back from the title we find, and brought to the registers. I have little doubt that sidelined merchandise sales are just at or greater than what we sell in paper.

A little more than half the time, their book lies on one of these tables of - a "best of","recently arrived" or "featured in." We have a table for nearly every section in the bookstore. And yet, there is a corner with little of this effulgence, a number of shelves left to leather-bound tomes with gilted edges and dusty mass market paperbacks, Library of America hardbacks and the unassuming Modern Library & Everyman's Library editions. It is a corner I look toward when my eyes have been all abuzz and ablaze with the maddening colors, graphics and blurb-ridden outsides of the books that may, or may not, make the cut this season for gift-able "readers." I print out a gift receipt if there is any hesitancy that they (or the gifted) will not.

I would direct every customer to that "Classics Corner" if each one were so inclined to choose something overlooked in their elementary, high school, or college days. Perhaps even discarding their bias over Silas Marner or their old, sick feeling looking at the size of Moby Dick - they'd discover the lasting joy and critical interest of a previous century of reading. If I am asked what I'd recommend, it's usually something that has been out for a decade or several decades - that's my own bias. Whether a bookstore employee has personally reviewed the book themselves at times holds little empirical importance over whether or not it is placed in hand and kept there, warm, until the checkout line. Rather, it needs to be available now, so being desired by a loved one; or it's a prize winner, perhaps being just been heard about "on the wind," i.e. The New York Times. What shines of a newer veneer sells better than what age has deemed of a stronger, lasting quality. 

So why not repackage and redesign? In fact, the NYRB is doing a good job of bringing us back to the sense of a book as having some value in itself, or a value that outlasts its current praise or past praise with a minimum of dressing. Even their editions could reign in design choices, keeping closer to solid colors, a welfare of detail, and few to no words of recommend. This bookseller-by-day handles hundreds of transactions and harbors just as many experiences of customer service to prove a hypothesis like the above to the most seasoned distributor, editor, or author. You learn to recognize the difference in selling a book and having sold someone a product.

In prefacing the discussion of my third book in hand, Jane Langton's The Diamond in the Window, with this experience of holiday book selling (with more than a little undertone of frustration) I wanted to highlight the difference between books as objects to be read or admired and books that provide reading experiences. The reading experience is central to Langton's novel for the young-in-spirit, and half-way through this novel there is enough indication that the immediate desire to have an item of worth is not half as valuable as the experience of searching for value in itself.

Set in Concord, Massachusetts, a hundred or so years after Thoreau, Emerson and Alcott's days, two young persons of Walden Street begin an adventure. Eleanor and Edward live with their Uncle Freddy and Aunt Lily. The former is an eccentric home dweller who speaks to his busts of the ancients Henry and Waldo, while the latter is a spinster who cannot make enough in piano lessons for her family to pay back taxes on their house. The children find this out without their guardians knowing so, and a small fear that their unsightly home will be torn down is born in their minds and hearts. Soon after, as they play across from their dank home, they notice that their attic must support an even higher room, when they spy a window they've never looked through. They discover the former room of their Aunt Lily's brother and sister Ned & Nora (psycho-spiritual doubles), who vanished along with a childhood friend from the East, Prince Krishna. Already, we find references to the 19th century Transcendentalists and their literary/religious sources.

As the search for treasure consumes their thoughts and guides their hands to turn over everything in the attic room, they decide to sleep there in the light of the diamond-shaped window. The window, which holds a poem whose stanzas are clues, gathers a different light each evening. Their dreams take on a different form, each night existing within and without the former belongings of their forgotten aunt, uncle, and family friend. Langton does an amazing job of creating a universe of connection over space and time that links the adventures of the dreaming children with the disappearance of the 3 persons dear to the Hall family. It is this compass of proportions as a guide and the dichotomy of dream/waking, past/present, west/east, that creates an inviting tension that the reader can't help but see through to resolve - especially with the impending date of their eviction from their own home.

The most interesting character in the novel is Uncle Freddy, the eccentric who is later re-instated as Professor Frederick T. Hall - after nearly being sent to the madhouse. He transitions from quotation to realization, from an obliviousness to the reality of their town to playing a key role in the celebration of Concord's historic past in the Revolutionary War. The thin line between what is sane and insane is tipped in the affirming direction, not because that's how he is able to fit into the society that would deny him, but because his mind is in-firmed by the teachings of men that would be his freedom. Even the Transcendentalists are transcended. Penultimately, a school is founded and a book to be written collaborated on between Professor Hall and Prince Krishna is begun (title unknown: perhaps something on the Bhagavad Gita's concept of liberation and its place in American thought after Thoreau?). Knowledge is pursued, not money, and what was lost, retrieved.

This book was cherished by both myself and to whom I read it aloud. Her mother loaned us the book and now that it is finished, I have an obligation to return it. But as we finished it and knew we had to send it back through the mail, I had this horrible feeling of anger at not having been gifted the book. It was acute and sharp, directed at her mother, and I thought about how I couldn't keep the object. Not until I could step back and observe my feelings did it occur how little I was able to take into my consciousness the teachings of The Diamond in the Window, every innocent, wise and loving word. Thinking myself no better experiencing this than anyone feeling an inclination towards one text or another at the bookstore, whatever the condition, I felt a deeper remorse-of-conscience for our kind in general. I caught my selfish attitude only upon self-reflection, though this brought me to the central teaching of Langton's book, which occurs in the chapter titled "The Chambered Nautilus." Seek out this book from your library, your local bookstore or a loved one, to find this jewel of Truth.


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Portland, OR, United States
For the Observatory's Grand Opening