Books, Bradbury, and Knowing Beans

by on January 14, 2011
in Uncategorized

My mom called me this morning at around 6 am.  She lives in rural Missouri and tries to wait until a “decent” hour before she calls in the morning.  I am usually awake, but not always out of bed when she rings.  We’ve kept in touch this way for years.  She calls to tell me about all kinds of things: the worshipers at church, births and deaths of anyone I might know, marriages, the latest recipe she found, the last book she’s been reading.

This morning she called me about an article she read in her little hometown paper, Bethany’s Republican Clipper.  The author was lamenting what he had discovered at a university bookstore during a recent trip to the Mizzou campus in Columbia.  “Where are the books?” he asked.  In their place he had found cosmetics, movies, toys, candy, and gift cards.  He pondered what was becoming of our society when we have become so dependent on digital knowledge.  He argued for the continuing necessity of physical books, those glorious works of art upon whose pages is recorded the best and worst of human thought.

It’s a good question…where are the books?

I see many of them on thrift store shelves.  I come home with a stack of them almost every week from Goodwill.  Their prices range from $0.10 to $2.00 each.  I don’t often check books out from the Library.  I’m incredibly grateful for the library, my children adore it, but I never remember to bring the books back on time.  I’m forever paying late fees and I’ve found it’s just cheaper to buy my own copy.  Besides that I’m a compulsive re-reader.  I seldom read a book just once…unless it was drivel the first time around, in which case I don’t waste my time.  I love words, the sound of them as they move through my mind, the texture of them on my tongue when I say them aloud.  I love the combination of words that lead to meaning, to thought, and to action.  There are passages in the books I’ve read that have the flow and cadence of poetry.  I like to reread it just for the depth of feeling and soul resonating power they engender.

I have often set down a book that has just filled my heart and mind up and been appalled to see the $0.25 price tag.  How could those thoughts be worth only twenty-five cents?  Grateful as I am that I could afford to purchase it, I am still appalled.  It comes too close for comfort to Guy Montag’s initial belief that books had no value in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  And just how close to the hedonistic society described by Bradbury have we become when a box of Trojans has replaced a copy of Tolstoy on the shelf?

The act of bookmaking used to be an art form.  The illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages, the beloved and well-tended scrolls of the ancients, even the carved clay tablets of the early Mesopotamians were all created, cared for, and preserved because they were beautiful both in being and in content.  They were valued not only for the words on their pages, but for the time it took to create them, the joy that went into every stroke of the pen or brush.

It reminds me of farming.  “Vernie,” you say “Everything reminds you of farming.”  It’s true.  I’m a farmer…what else can I say?

We’ve had the most fascinating experiences over the last 10 months as we have been busily building a successful farm here in the Willamette Valley.  We have done our best to marry the joy of our ancestors farming methods with the modern technology of marketing.  We’ve tried to make it easier for our customers to order our farm goods while maintaining our commitment to raise our produce naturally.

What does that have to do with books or more specifically the value of books?  Just about everything.

We have become accustomed to the digital information age.  With our Kindle’s, Nook’s, and iPad’s we have access to 1000’s of books right at our fingertips.  Not only that, but we can search our books by keyword and idea, thereby chunking our texts into little tidbits, tiny bite size pieces that don’t take too long to consume.  We see this paradigm shift in our farming business as well.  We’ve made it so easy to order products on line that sometimes potential customers are unaware that we actually do raise the food they are purchasing; an effort which takes time.  I recently had several customers experience some difficulty with ordering a product in our web store.  I received multiple emails informing me that the system was not working because they couldn’t order what they wanted.  I had to explain, in a couple of instances several times, that it wasn’t the system…there simply weren’t any more (eggs, milk, kale, etc.).  “What?” is the response I heard “But I want to order some.”  It’s a producer’s nightmare, people want your product but you don’t have enough.  All I could do was explain that the chickens, cows, and garden can only produce so much.  We don’t force feed them, or put them in cages to make them lay, or sprinkle the ground with chemical fertilizers that would make them bigger.  We grow in harmony with the seasons and with the needs of the animals.

And it takes time.

Time.  That is the crux of the common dilemma between books, farming, raising children, cooking a healthy meal, or creating a work of art.

We can gain enough information in 15 minutes of skimming a book on the hand-held gadgetry of our choice to hold our own in a college class or coffee shop discussion.  We can walk or drive to the closest restaurant and have a fully cooked, ready-to-go meal in the same amount of time.  We can get on YouTube and pick up child rearing helps in little 3 minute bites.  We can bring home a well-balanced, supposedly nutritious pre-made meal that can be served up piping hot in less than 20 minutes.  We can take a mediocre digital snap-shot, run it through Photoshop to make it brighter, clearer, more colorful and voila! we have an instant work of art.

We can do all these things that save us time… but has it really saved us?  What have we done with all this extra time we are saving?  Is this kind of internet style book, food, and art surfing enough to change our heart, nourish our bodies or to move us to action?  When I have to explain that it takes time for the chickens to lay eggs, much the same as Aesop’s fable “The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs”, I’m inclined to think that something is grievously wrong.  I often get off the phone or finish answering an email and I think “Don’t they know that it takes time to raise and grow good food?”  Many of our farm members do, I hear quite often from our amazing customers how glad they are that we persist in a farming method that costs more, pays less, but provides a superior crop.  They value the work that we do because they recognize the time it takes to do it.

Value is in direct relationship to effort.  We value what we work for, what we expend our resources for, what we sacrifice for.  We value what we take time to pursue.  That which comes too easily I’m afraid we discard just as quickly.

Farms, families, literature and art are not created overnight.  They take effort, commitment, and an intense dedication to whichever principles drive the creators.  Like Thoreau we must be “determined to know beans.”  To know the value of a book we must read it, hold it, ponder it, and discuss it.  To know the value of a work of art (be it painted, sung, played, or acted) we must spend time in observance, contemplation, and discovery of it.  To “know beans” we must plow the field, plant the seed, pull the weeds, and labor against mice (woodchucks for Thoreau), grasshoppers, and mold.

We must put the time in to reading, listening, seeing, and doing.  So that the next time someone asks the question “Where are the books?” we will be able to say with a surety, not unlike Bradbury’s Granger, that the books are in us.