"But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never tired of making them. It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our father is younger than we."
When I was in library school, I had an assignment to edit the wikipedia page for someone influential in library history, and I ended up with S.R. Ranganathan, who is known as the father of library science in India and known worldwide for his contributions to the field, including his five laws of library science. Chief among these is the concept that "books are for use."
For those who follow his five laws, this first one means that we do not value the book as a physical object, but rather the information or narratives that lie within it, and the experience of the reader is paramount. Books are not, in themselves, sacred; rather, the value of a book is in finding the right reader at the right time for it to make a difference for them, even if the book returns to us a little more battered than it was when we handed it out. It means that dog-eared pages and marginalia are expected features of an engaged readership, not bugs. It means that circulated items have a lifespan, and that lifespan is finite.
It doesn't mean that the books are never precious, and my bookshelves at home reflect this. I have an aged, tattered copy of Where the Red Fern Grows that my dad gave to me when I was young, and I have carried it everywhere I've ever lived. My husband, similarly, has an antique copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and we have a small collection of the stories that have been most important to us over the years. These books have places on our shelves because they are part of who we are and who we want to be.
I was reminded of those books, and the librarian's first rule, this week when reading this piece at The Bitter Southerner about Jack Martin, who makes handmade brooms in Selmer, Tennessee. His brooms are works of art, and can be seen on theater and television sets as well as everyday kitchens and garages. Not for nothing, either, is the piece entitled "The Broom Prophet." Martin's brooms are beautiful and crafted by hand, but at the same time are absolutely intended for use (and priced, more or less, accordingly). Reading about him and his work, I thought about how, when I started writing this letter, I was working hard to find things to treasure in my everyday life. This served as a timely reminder, but it also brought to mind the opposite: there is also, if we look for it, a bit of everyday even in the treasured and magical.
My grandmother is a quilter. As long as I've known her, there has almost always been a quilt in progress. Whether intended for a newly-married couple, a newly-arrived baby, a church auction, or just because, the quilts took shape one block at a time, then were stretched over a frame to have their bindings and finishes added by hand. Although a few have been meant to hang on walls, and even though they're absolutely beautiful, the majority of these quilts were intended to be spread over beds and under babies. So when a quilt arrived for Ro, I fought the urge to treat it as something that had to stay pristine--we don't have much space for things that can't be used, in any case--and decided to make a point to use it whenever possible. It serves as a tummy time mat and a carseat cover, gets thrown over her when she's bundled up into my coat to walk somewhere, and occasionally gets spit up on and has to go in the laundry. Because my own baby quilt is still with me, and more or less intact, I can trust that this beautiful, precious thing is meant and made to be used and loved, not just looked at.
Some things, it turns out, take their value from doing what they were made to do. Like in Naomi Shihab Nye's poem, Famous, which is one of my favorites:
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
There is a certain magic, sometimes, in putting even precious things to the use they were meant for. There is a certain magic in never forgetting what you can do.
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