The Value of a Book

I met my closest friend when we were college freshmen. She was from the Boston area and had three sisters, a wise and wonderful mother, and a clergyman father who did wartime service as an Army chaplain. The parallels between her life and a certain classic American novel were uncanny. She even had a sister named Meg.

In those days, it wasn’t the fashion for the young women of Bryn Mawr to admire Little Women. It was treacly, moralistic and far too celebratory of domestic life. But my friend was never one to bow to peer pressure, and she unabashedly loved the novel. She saw her own family in the Marches, but time-traveled to an earlier century when life seemed more exciting and every woe and joy more poignant. And she easily could see herself in the lead character. Although she was the youngest of the sisters, she was no Amy. She was Jo — brilliant, stubborn, deeply curious and honest to a fault.

One day in December of our freshmen year, I happened upon a used book sale on campus. Boxes of dusty old books were regularly donated by alumnae cleaning out their attics, or more often, their heirs cleaning out their houses. While sifting through stacks of battered volumes, I came upon an ancient edition of Little Women. I flipped through the pages to check for mold or mites — it looked okay — then paused on the flyleaf. There was a handwritten inscription with a slight backward slant: L. M. Alcott.

I didn’t know if Louisa May ever went on tour or signed stock in bookstores or did any Costco-type events, but I felt certain that an autographed copy of her most famous work was a rare find. I bought it on the spot for a dollar.

Now I had a decision to make. What to do with my prize? It probably had some pecuniary value that I, a poor scholarship student, could have enjoyed. And even if I couldn’t resell it, ownership of it was worth bragging rights for an English major and future novelist like myself. My friend came from a wealthy family and majored in sociology; neither the money nor the cachet would mean as much to her. But I knew what the contents of that book meant to her, and how much it would mean for her to know that Alcott had put her name to that very copy. So I wrapped it up and gave it to my friend for Christmas.

In the years since, I’ve come to realize that I was the true beneficiary of that gifting experience. I learned a lesson — not that it’s better to give than to receive (I hope I already knew that one), but rather that there’s a difference between marketplace value and the real value of an object. In this season of Black Friday and Cyber Monday and, soon enough, post-holiday clearance sales, that’s a lesson I try to remember.

I especially try to remember it when it comes to books. The value of a book can’t be found in its sales figures, or the size of the author’s advance, or even the number of prestigious awards it snags. The value of a book lies in its ability to speak to a reader across miles and years and to win a special place in her heart. And you can’t put a price tag on that.

(But Deb, if you’re reading this, an autographed copy of Little Women recently sold at auction for $8,900. Just so you know.)


This essay originally appeared on Bookreporter.com, as one of their 2018 Holiday Blogs.

September 19th, 2017

When I was in law school, I interned at a legal aid clinic about forty miles from Philadelphia. One of our clients was a man named Zeke. He was a country boy of indeterminate age with long, ropy hair and a grizzled beard, and he lived in an abandoned school bus in the woods with his cow Bessie. He was part country hick, part hippie and part mountain man. He was Gomer Pyle crossed with the Unabomber.

I was helping him appeal from the denial of welfare benefits. One day I was reviewing with him  his income (none) and his assets (Bessie). He seemed a bit more unfocused than usual, and suddenly he blurted, “Are you married?”

“No-no,” I stammered.

“Would you like to be?”

“No!” I gasped.

But a couple years later I did get married –– to a city boy living in a one-bedroom apartment.

We’re celebrating our anniversary this week, and it occurred to me that I would have been happy living in that school bus in the woods so long as it was with the man I married. Especially if his cow was a Guernsey. I hear they give the creamiest milk.

Late to the Party, But We Still Had Fun


Here in the mountains of western North Carolina (we pseudo-locals call it WNC), the fall foliage season peaks in October. Tourists from far and wide are aware of this and book their travel plans months in advance. We live in the heart of WNC and somehow missed it. Well, I had my excuses: I’ve been mostly housebound for the past two months, recuperating from a broken back (more about that some other time) and working to finish a big project.

Yesterday, having finally emerged from a fog of pain and toil, I was ready to get out and admire the fall color. We planned a trip up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Blowing Rock with stops at Grandfather Mountain and Linville Falls on the way back. I was vaguely aware that the weather had taken a chilly turn, so I wore a hoodie over my turtleneck and tossed a windbreaker in the back seat. (This from a woman who once lived in Alaska and ought to know better how to dress for weather contingencies).

Our house is at Elevation 2500 and we still have some gold and crimson leaves on our leaves. But as we climbed upward, the leaves disappeared. Also, the temperature dropped a degree every hundred feet up. That’s fine, we cheered ourselves. With the leaves down, the views will be even more spectacular. On we went. We had the Parkway to ourselves and thought how pleasant it was and how very clever we were to have missed the tourist stampede.

But before we were halfway on our journey, we were unexpectedly and rather rudely forced off the Parkway by a barricade with a sign reading “Closed for Snow and Ice.” Ha! A few flurries and the Park Service starts to clutch its bureaucratic pearls.

So down we went to the highway, and wait—what ho!–what approaches? Cars with rooftop caps of snow perched jauntily over their windshields. And what’s that on the shoulders of the road? A dusting of snow like talcum powder in the creases of a woman’s arms. Did you know about this? the Sidekick asked, his tone a bit accusing. No, I cried. The weather channel said Sunny. I didn’t mention that there was an alert crawling across the scream that some people were reporting snowfall in the area, because those were obviously false reports. How could there be snow if the forecast was Sunny?

Soon the snow was no longer content to collect on the roadside but was making its presence known on the roadway as well. By now the dashboard thermometer showed that we’d dropped into the teens, and there were no views, leafless or otherwise, because the sky has gone to an opaque swirl. We were in a white-out.

This expedition had already lost all its appeal, but I don’t like to admit defeat. We were bound for Blowing Rock, and by God, that’s where we would go. And we did. We emerged from the ice fog and parked downtown. I grabbed my windbreaker, but the wind just laughed at my feeble efforts and blew right through me as we tried to negotiate Main Street. We made our way over icy sidewalks to the Village Café, only to learn that it closed for the season four days before. Wait—there’s a season?

This story doesn’t get any more dramatic than that, I’m afraid. We ate in a different restaurant and drove home with our electric seat warmers on and had drinks in front of the fire. But perhaps I’ve learned a lesson about tardiness. And also that Sunny does not mean without snowfall.

The Curious Case of the Constipated Carp

“Listen to this,” my husband yelled from the next room. “A man in England took his pet to the veterinarian and paid $485 to get it un-constipated. It was a goldfish.”

I was drinking a glass of water at the time, and I did a spit-take right out of The Three Stooges. Unfortunately I was at my computer, and I spewed a mouthful of water all over the keyboard. Instantly the screen went staticky like the HBO intro, then it went blank, then the whole computer lapsed into a coma.

It’s now being air-lifted to the nearest Apple Trauma Center. I await word of its prognosis and applicable insurance coverage.

Meanwhile, I’ve lost a day’s work because I don’t back up often enough.

Unlike the goldfish.

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-norfolk-30655444

Luck of the Draw

This week I’m reading Some Luck, by Jane Smiley. This is the promised start of a trilogy about a Midwestern farming family.

This is ground she’s plowed before, of course (pun unapologetically intended) in A Thousand Acresamong other works. I can’t say I exactly enjoyed A Thousand Acres (so grim, and that was at the good moments), but some of its images resonated so deeply that I can still conjure them up in an instant all these many years later.

There is so much I admire about Smiley. I admire that she writes from something other than a modern urban sensibility. I admire her deep understanding of and empathy with ordinary people in the heartland. And I so admire her output! What a body of work she has. And somehow managed to have four husbands along the way! I don’t know how anyone could navigate the rapids of marriage, divorce, courtship and remarriage multiple times and still be able to steer her work to such fabulous completion. I wonder if maybe a new husband is just what one needs to keep that creative battery charged.

I jest. And speaking of Some Luck, I’m well aware that it’s only by luck that I’ve managed to stay happily married to one man all these years. It would be nice to think that the secret to our success is that we’re such wonderful people, but I won’t delude myself. My husband and I like to say that our marriage succeeds because one of us is a saint, but we’re never sure which one.

We were married in Anchorage, and for our anniversary this year we returned to the scene of the crime. We felt the giddiness of newlyweds as we went galloping around the city in search of the street corner where we met, the restaurant where we first dined together, the apartment building where we first lived together, the courthouse where we got married, and the hotel where we had our wedding luncheon. Well, the street corner was under repair, the restaurant was closed, and the courthouse had moved. But to paraphrase Elton John, we’re still standing, better than we ever did, looking like true survivors, feeling like little kids.


No More Resting at the Mediocre Inn

There’s a story, probably a fable, about a mountain lodge midway up one of the French Alps called the Mediocre Inn.  (Apparently “mediocre” is French for “halfway.”)  Travelers bound for the summit break their trip there and stop for a hot meal or a soft bed.  Some of them linger longer.  It’s a cozy spot, and while the view may not be as spectacular as it is at the peak, it’s still pretty nice.  Eventually most of them decide that there’s really no reason to push on to the top.  Why take the chance of blisters and frostbite?  They’ve already accomplished a lot just coming this far, and it’s so very pleasant at the Mediocre Inn.

There are a few different ways to spin that metaphor, and here’s mine.  After you achieve a certain level of success and comfort in your life, there’s a real reluctance to do anything to rock the boat.  The more you have, the more you have to lose.  The more risk-averse you become.

I’m guilty of lingering at the Mediocre Inn.  While I hope my work hasn’t been mediocre, I know my life has been.  It’s been comfortable.  Easy — not to say I haven’t worked hard, because, God!, how I’ve toiled — but easy in the sense of predictable.  I’ve been living in a controlled environment where everything I do has a moderate range of expected outcomes.  No sudden moves and no big surprises.

Until I finished law school, I’d spent the whole of my life in one little corner of Pennsylvania.  Then I astonished everyone by accepting a job in Alaska even though I didn’t know a soul there except the people who’d hired me.  But I was single, mostly broke, and I’d always dreamed about life on the last frontier.  Now or never, I thought, and off I went.  It was a Bold Move, but I had so little to lose back then.

Now I’m on the brink of another Bold Move, and I have a few things to lose this time.  A comfortable niche in the legal world, the warm regard of clients and colleagues, good friendships that will inevitably fade with distance and diminished opportunity.  But there are new adventures out there, and I’ll never experience them if I don’t put down my mug of hot chocolate and get up and out of the Mediocre Inn.  The summit is still up there, and I still haven’t scaled it.

On Leaving the Law and Other Random Acts of Foolhardiness

I’ve been dropping hints like hand grenades, but today I finally made it official:  I announced to management that I will be leaving the firm at the end of the year.

The law, she been very very good to me, but it’s time to go. It’s time to start a new adventure.  Next year the Sidekick and I are moving to the mountains.  (Okay, maybe he’s the Superhero and I’m the Sidekick, but this is my blog.)  We plan to enjoy the outdoor life again, the way we did when we lived in Alaska. I plan to write, maybe teach, read everything I missed while I was in court, learn to be a better cook, organize those photo albums . . . .  But mostly, write.

Get me copy.

One of the things I love about the Internet is the ability to click on a couple links and find myself at a site I never would have sought out on my own. Smart Bitches Trashy Books posts reviews of romance novels by a few self-described “smart bitches.” I don’t read romance novels, I’m not that smart and I do try not to be a bitch, so I never would have gone looking for this website. But a blogger with whom I share other interests linked me there, just in time to catch this discussion:

http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/index.php/weblog/finally_heard_back_from_signet/

Apparently an author of historical romances has been exposed for having incorporated someone else’s material into her books. Her publisher stepped up to defend her by invoking the fair-use doctrine, which I remember well from my days as an intellectual property lawyer.

(Aside: it was always such fun to introduce myself as an intellectual property lawyer; people instantly assumed that I myself was intellectual, or at least pretentious.)

Anyway, in a nutshell, fair-use permits another to use copyrighted material for purposes such as scholarship, research, criticism, etc. The factors to be examined in determining whether use is fair include: (a) whether the use is for commercial or non-profit purposes; (b) the proportionate amount of the material used; and (c) whether the works would compete with each other in the marketplace. There’s no bright-line test, and the determination is always case-by-case and fact-specific.

Without having read any of the works in question, I can’t weigh in on whether the fair-use doctrine applies to this author’s work. But I’m struck by a couple of points raised in this discussion.

First, the publisher argues that “the fair-use doctrine permits reasonable borrowing and paraphrasing of another author’s words, especially for the purpose of creating something new and original.”

Dear Publisher: You should have cut that sentence off at the comma. Regardless of whether the “borrowing and paraphrasing” is permitted by law, there’s no way an author is creating something “new and original” when she’s using “another author’s words.” Sincerely, Bonnie.

But I think the Smart Bitches’ rejoinder misses the mark, too. The poster argues that regardless of the legalities, from an ethical standpoint, the author has done wrong.

I don’t think ethics has any place in a discussion of art or literature. Do we reject a novel because the circumstances of its creation were unethical? Imagine that Nabakov based Lolita on his real-life exploits with (and exploitation of) young girls. Unethical, illegal, disgusting, but Lolita would still be an original work of art. What if Mario Puzo gathered all his material by paying off mobsters who then used the money to import drugs? Probably unethical, but The Godfather is still worth reading. (Though perhaps not two dozen times, my darling husband.) Harriet Beecher Stowe gained fame and fortune on the backs of slaves, and Mark Twain used the N word repeatedly. What’s ethical and who decides?

The debate shouldn’t be about ethics so much as art. A plagiarized work isn’t art; it’s just a repackaging of someone else’s art.

Novel. The word means new.

People like to say that there haven’t been any original stories since Shakespeare or the Bible. Everything since then is just a retread.

I don’t agree. The themes might be familiar, but there’s plenty of space in the human imagination to create original characters and plots and settings to address those themes. There’s plenty of space for original ideas. And, of course, there’s infinite space to create original prose, and no excuse, ever, for borrowing someone else’s.

Madame Grammarian

A hazard of being known as a writer is that people often imagine that I know all the rules of grammar and punctuation. I’m pretty good at faking it if all they want is for me to run my eyes over something and tell them if it’s right. But when they follow up with “What’s the rule?” — I’m revealed as the empress with no clothes. Here’s the latest example. A lawyer-friend (not to be confused with a friendly lawyer) is drafting the deal documents for some billion-dollar transaction. The agreement provides for payment of a sum that’s either X or some formula that results in Y. Specifically, the agreement provides that the greater of those two sums must be paid. My friend’s question: is the amount to be paid the greater of “X and Y” or the greater of “X or Y”?

My knee-jerk answer was “X and Y,” and on further reflection that seems the logical answer, too. There is a universe of two outcomes — conjunctive, not disjunctive — and we must choose the greater of those two. But for many people, “the greater of X or Y” sounds right.

What’s the answer, and what’s the rule?

I don’t know the rule, but I know the answer. Rewrite the damn clause so that it requires “the payment of X or Y, whichever is greater.”

I Got Chills; They’re Multiplying

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, fewer than half of adult Americans report having read a work of creative literature during the previous year, more than a ten percent decline since 1982. (2004 NEA report here, http:/www.nea.gov/pub/ReadingatRisk.pdf, and updated here, http://www.nea.gov/research/ToRead.pdf)

Caleb Crain does a detailed analysis of this trend in the Christmas Eve issue of The New Yorker (and what a lump of coal that was). http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2007/12/24/071224crat_atlarge_crain?currentPage=all. His focus is largely on the effect of this trend (e.g., a decline in the ability to think abstractly), not the cause, and the NEA doesn’t directly address caustion either; it reports only a correlation with increased participation with electronic media.

That’s the conventional wisdom, I suppose, that there are too many other media competing for our attention. Back in the heyday of reading, it was either read or whittle, and eventually you ran out of wood.

But I’m afraid that it might be more than just a question of time allocation. I’m afraid the trend shows a societal backlash against literature by an increasingly anti-elitist population. Crain notes that literary reading might someday become the province of a special “reading class,” as it was in the 1800’s, but without the prestige of exclusivity that it had in that era; instead, it will be regarded simply as an arcane hobby.

Literary reading used to be something that non-readers aspired to, not scoffed at. In the pre-mechanization cigar factories in Ybor City, Florida, the workers would listen to a lector read great works of literature while they hand-rolled each cigar. (This practice inspired the Pulitzer-prize winning play, Anna in the Tropics, by Nilo Cruz.) Can you imagine assembly-line workers today giving their rapt attention to a well-dressed lector reading Anna Karenina? There would be jeers and catcalls, cries to shut the f__ up.

Egalitarianism is usually a good thing, but not when it fosters an attitude that nothing and no one is better than me, and I don’t need to aspire to nothing. Literary reading isn’t just overlooked in the flurry of multiple media, it’s rejected as too snooty, too condescending, and who you think you’re talking to?

The same attitude is apparently at work in the growing (and also alarming) trend of newspapers to drop their book reviews. The former book editor of the L.A. Times blamed it on “faux populism,” explaining that only the books that can be understood by the greatest number of readers can be reviewed, because anything else smacks of elitism. http://vueweekly.com/articles/default.aspx?i=7761

What’s the solution? We’re not going to change the nature of the populace, but we could change the way literature is presented to them. We should stop force-feeding archaic texts to our high school students. Yes, Shakespeare was brilliant, but save him for college. Teach literature as a form of entertainment and not torture. Make it accessible. Make it fun.