Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Value of a Book: Or, Why I'm Not an Economist

While coming up with the list of good reads for avid and early readers in the post below, I was surprised and depressed to see that a book I paid a dollar for is actually worth about $50.

Why depressed? First, since I don't wish to sell the book, its "actual value" is irrelevant to me. Maybe even negatively relevant, since knowing the 5-year-old is using a sneaker as a bookmark in a book worth $50 instead of $1 is likely to tempt me to scold her unduly or even forbid her to read the book except under controlled conditions.

Second, the point of a book is to be read. Scarcity and high cost--linked issues of course--cause a book to fail to achieve its proper end. I want my friends and I to read good books and to give them to our children, and this is better done if the book is cheap and available.

A week ago, at our local Goodwill store, I spotted a book with a familiar spine tossed into the bins of books-to-be-shelved. (These bins, by the way, cause the destruction of about one in five books thrown--literally--into them by the store employees, and are an abomination upon the earth.) It turned out to be the rarest of all the old Landmark history series, The Exploits of Xenophon, in pristine condition (it was at the top of the bin). I knew, from past attempts to find a copy, that its value was between one and two hundred dollars. Even so I haggled with the cashier who tried to charge me $3 for it--sure it was in the Hardcover bin, but children's books are only supposed to be $1--being the petty miserable creature that I am.

So what is the "actual value" of that book? Or any book? Other than books of genuine (yes, I'm question-begging here) historical value as objects in themselves, I hold that a book's value is in the worthiness of the story it tells, augmented by the physical beauty of the book in its illustrations and (to a lesser degree) its outward attractiveness, with a bonus for physical durability, in the case of children's books (thus the happy circumstance that library bindings, which destroy the value of books for collectors, mean that cheapness and durability go hand in hand.) When I bought Flossie and Bossie, I thought it underpriced at $0.99: though not in the best condition, it's a book of high story quality, suitable for the children of even quite puritanical parents, and illustrated by a talented artist. A bargain, I thought: why, I would have paid $2.99 or even $3.99 for it.

Obviously I would like others to have access to a good book, in the interest of increasing the reading of worthy and valuable books. This requires availability and affordability (linked issues of course). A $50 book is not those, and will not be read by those who ought to read it, leaving the world worse off. A sane person who has acquired a rare and excellent book (I know Xenophon's quality from having checked it out from the Big State U. library for Offspring #1, who raved about it--and checking it out wasn't easily done, either, as the BSU library people knew how much it was worth) for $1 should surely wish it reprinted and available, even at a theoretical "cost" to herself of $199. A sane person should happily put it in the hands of a child old enough to enjoy the exciting true-life adventure story of Xenophon's Persian Expedition, without fretting that it will be put back on the bookshelf a week later less $50 of "value."

To the Darwins: Should I find another copy of Flossie and Bossie at a price worthy of a sane world, I will happily show my contempt for the Market by giving it, free, to your beautiful and precociously reading daughter.

On the condition you let her write her name in it. In pen.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Talking Beasts and Precocious Readers: UPDATED

The Darwins have encountered that bane of many hyper-literate parents: what do you have a young child read who is past the beginning-reader phase of Frog and Toad but just isn't interested in the school-based adventures of Harry Potter and doesn't have the life experience to make sense out of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis?

The Opinionated Household has been through this twice, and after much trial and error with Offspring #1, we were pretty secure in offering the same books to #2, with success for the greater part. Here then is the Opinionated List of Books for Little People with High Reading Levels.

1. Caroline Haywood. The writer of the Betsy and Eddie books was the Beverly Cleary of the previous generation. Haywood writes at a level close to that of Cleary--maybe a little simpler--and her children are charming and realistic. Many of Haywood's titles are back in print, to my joy.

2. My Father's Dragon. Everything a small child could want in a book: adventure, talking animals, a cuddly dragon, and not too long.

3. Uncle Wiggily. After reading a few dozen of Howard Garis' stories of the Gentleman Rabbit, I felt fairly sure I could whip up a macro that would churn out any number of them. (Garis originally wrote them for newspaper publication, which explains in part the stories' brevity and exhausting conventionality.) Offspring #1 had only a cheap Dover edition containing a few Uncle Wiggily stories, and I stumbled on a couple of battered out-of-print collections when Offspring #2 was a baby. Both children read them, and re-read them, and re-re-read them, compulsively at Kindergarten age. #2 even started to talk like Uncle Wiggily for a while, and refused to read anything else whatsoever.

4. Flossie and Bossie. Eva Le Gallienne apparently never wrote any children's book other than this tale of talking hens, which is a shame, as her talent was huge. Again, talking animals are the key to its appeal for the advanced young reader. Beautifully illustrated by Garth Williams (the illustrator for Charlotte's Web and Little House on the Prairie), and easily the most beloved book of both my girls. Ever. I bought our battered copy for $.99, and haven't ever seen it again. Bookfinder has it for $44 and up. It's a crime that it hasn't been reprinted.

5. Oz. Baum was no great shakes as a writer, but as with Uncle Wiggily, repetitive language and narrative devices that drive parents to drink are the key to little person popularity. There are dozens and dozens of books in the Oz series, all featuring roughly the same characters, storylines, and conflict resolutions, so one need never run dry. And, again, talking beasts.

Update: How could I have forgotten these? Both of these are small books, just right for the developing attention span.

6. The Enormous Crocodile. I'm actually not a huge fan of Dahl; but this book of his is written for younger kids, and is extremely funny, especially if you are capable of pulling off a couple of British accents. Secret plans and clever tricks!

7. Wren. The true story of an adorable little girl with cerebral palsy, and her life with her devoutly Catholic family and lots and lots of animals, written by her mother, Marie Killilea. Both my girls loved it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Quatuor Tempora

Today is the first of the three Ember Days for this quarter of the year. Ember Days are an almost-lost discipline of prayer and fasting on the traditional days of penance--Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday--at regular intervals through the year.
Ember days (corruption from Lat. Quatuor Tempora, four times) are the days at the beginning of the seasons ordered by the Church as days of fast and abstinence. They were definitely arranged and prescribed for the entire Church by Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) for the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after 13 December (S. Lucia), after Ash Wednesday, after Whitsunday, and after 14 September (Exaltation of the Cross). The purpose of their introduction, besides the general one intended by all prayer and fasting, was to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy.
Given that Texas is still experiencing severe drought conditions--the parts that aren't under water--Ember Days have continuing relevance. This might be a good week to pray for more rain, and less rain, and to perform acts of charity and bailout.

The etymology of the English term for the tempora is interesting. The OED surmises that the Anglo-Saxon ymbyre, meaning period or rotation of time, converged with the Latin tempora, meaning about the same thing, and buttresses the theory with the Old Swedish ymber-dagan for Ember Days.

The tempora occur in winter, in the week following St. Lucy's Day; in spring, after Ash Wednesday; in summer, after Pentecost Sunday; and in fall, after Holy Cross (which would be this week). A traditional handy mnemonic for remembering when the Ember Days cycle round:
Sant Crux, Lucia, Cineres, Charismata Dia
Ut sit in angaria quarta sequens feria.
Catching little jingle, isn't it? Leaning here on my questionable Latin: "Holy Cross, Lucy, Ashes, Charismata Days/ That there may be following four holy days of obligation." Which really doesn't make a lot of sense.

Now the tempora used to have a much bigger profile as fast days went, being the last relic of the ancient tradition of observing not just Fridays, but Wednesdays and Saturdays as well, as days of fast and penance. The Portuguese came up with the marvelous custom of taking the fish and veggies permitted at your one evening meal, breading them, and deep frying them. Penitentially, of course. Missionaries took this tasty idea with them to Japan, and behold:Yum.

UPDATE: A commenter at New Liturgical Movement mentions the German mnemonic for the Ember Days:
Asche, Pfingsten, Kreuz, Luzei,
die Woch' danach Quatamber sei.
Also, the NLMers point out that, because Holy Cross was on a Sunday this year, for some obscure reason this means that the Ember Days for fall are on the week following the week after Holy Cross. Okay.
HSLDA: Making the World Safe for Homeschoolers

Breathe easy. Your dues to the Home School Legal Defense Association continue to enable it to Fight For Our Homeschooling Freedoms (TM).

This coming Monday, September 29, homeschool parents will be able to pick up a complimentary tall size (12 fl. oz.) cup of Pike Place Roast from Starbucks.

This promotion is part of Starbucks “Great Start for Great Teachers” promotion, and is now open to all teachers.

HSLDA intervened when we were alerted that homeschool parents were not included in the promotion.

We are pleased that Starbucks is recognizing the contribution of homeschool parents by extending their program to us.

In order to pick up your free cup of Pike Place Roast you will need to present evidence that you are a homeschooler.
Maybe the expression of horror and mortification will constitute adequate evidence that I'm a homeschooler?