A lovely young Chinese girl pours boiling water into a 400-year-old teapot, adds tea leaves, and puts on the lid. Hot tea-flavored water cascades down the sides as she explains that the patina imparted by using the teapot is what gives it value. "Some things," she says as she wipes the sides with a cloth, "have no value unless they are used."
A Stradivarius violin, the finest violin in the world, cannot be kept in a safety deposit box or safe or it will crack and dry out and be useless. Unless it is used regularly by a violinist, no matter how good or bad she is, the violin is just so much glue, pegging, wood, and strings that go out of tune. The same is true of a piano, no matter what make or model; it will dry out, crack, and die without being used.
Some things were made to be used, and so it is with books, but how do you judge a book and assess its value?
Each book is a labor of love, a work of art, no matter what the critics say. Each book is the brain child given life and form on paper, and in pixels and electrons, and lives only when it is read.
Authors regularly tout their best selling status, count their profits, and continue to create more brain children, but does that make a book valuable? It is valuable in that the book earns money, but there is value beyond money, beyond the price, and beyond the profit. There is value in every book for some reader who has read the book so many times she can quote passages by heart, giving them nuance and a flavor the author may never have intended or realized. Each book is valuable to some one -- and sometimes to many someones, until the rest of the world and fans catch on. That is what I hope happens to my books, that they are read over and over by someone -- or many someones -- regardless of how much I earn, so long as they touch someone's heart and/or mind. That is the value of a book. It imparts a view of life, a bit of magic, a soupcon of wisdom, and often a titbit of laughter, tears, or joy.
Too often, in our rush to be recognized, lauded, and to profit from our dreams and visions made real, we forget that the real value in a book is in its impact. There is no value otherwise.
I remember a story about Beatrix Potter who made up stories and painted the scenes she saw in her imagination. As a Victorian woman, her only possibility of a life was to marry, manage a household, bear children, and be a helpmate to a man. The only other option was to ruin her reputation by going on the stage or becoming a prostitute, at least if she was from a good family. Lots of jobs were available for lower class women and few cared what they were. Someone had to serve, clean, cook, manage a household staff, etc., and no well born lady would have considered for a second having a valet instead of a lady's maid.
Beatrix was from a good family with some money and position and still she wanted to continue writing stories and painting her friends. She decided to have her work published and, with her companion in tow, she went round to various publishers until she found a publisher willing to take on her project and do it her way. She would not be fobbed off with second class work. She would draw and paint her own illustrations, and her first book was born.
Beatrix wrote and illustrated several books and, to her family's utter surprise, people talked about the little books as if they were gems of beauty and value, and bought so many of the books Beatrix was able to move out of her parents' home and into her own home on her own land bought with her own money. She was free at last. The rest of the story is as fascinating as the writing, but better leave that to another time and another subject.
Beatrix's books were her brain children and children, and adults, who bought the books loved them, cared for them, and passed them down to their own children. The books aren't big in size, but they are works of art that have value far and beyond the cost of materials and publisher's fees. The books are immortal. That's what every writer dreams and so few achieve.
Is it because the writing isn't good? Sometimes. Is it because the subject is off the beaten track? Sometimes. Is it because the author didn't play the socializing, marketing, and networking game? Not always.
Sometimes books don't hit their stride right away or fans don't form clans to discuss, rehash, and proselytize for the author. It's not the book or the author's fault; it's the luck of the draw -- or not drawn.
Every book has value to some person, some individual, and to the author. In order to transcend the first flush of creation, a book must be read and readers must talk and spread the word of mouth necessary to bring a book out of the shadows and into the light. However, if just one person, or even one hundred persons, read and reread and commit the book to memory, it's value soars. A book, like a 400-year-old teapot, has no value unless it is used. Usage brings a patina of beauty that the brightest diamonds and the richest fabrics cannot achieve.
Read a book. Pick one, any one, and find within it the beauty and profundity of the author's dreams. One person, one book, or a hundred persons and a hundred books, it does not matter. It only matters that you read and keep the words and images and dreams burnished. It's the difference between actual value and perceived value.
If you're looking for a gift, what better gift to give someone you love than a book?